Imagine a foot-wide pie with layers of tiny meatballs, tortellini tossed with ragu and cream sauces, parmesan cheese and a sweet cinnamon custard -- all enclosed by a sweet crust. It's a particularly lavish version of Italy's "Pasticcio di Tortellini" and it's definitely celebration food.

This unexpected combination of sugar and spice played against savory and salt is reminiscent of the exotic dishes of the Middle East and the courtly dishes of the Italian Renaissance.

When I first discovered the original of this recipe in an Emilia-Romagna cookbook, bells went off. Packed between its crusts was a character study of a region. Then I started questioning how and why each of the pie's components came into being and was launched on an exciting voyage into the history and folklore of one of Italy's lushest culinary capitals.

Most likely the dish was born in the area around Bologna, a city of passionate eaters, but nothing this sophisticated evolves from simple roots. As the pie is constructed of layers of ingredients, so are its cultural origins. A thumbnail sketch of Bologna's past reveals how this baroque treatise of taste may have come into being.

First there is a history of sustained wealth, which encouraged local foods to go beyond simple nourishment to become intricate status symbols of the erudite and powerful. Then pile on centuries of foreign influences, for Bologna was Europe's first university town, attracting students from the entire continent. Add the lusty Bolognese temperament, which seems to scoff at the less-is-more approach to dining, and the stage is set for the creation of this pie to end all pies.

Each part of the pasticcio has its own tale to tell. For instance, consider tortellini, now a fairly ordinary part of our shopping lists. But study this little doughnut of almost transparent dough and complex filling (mortadella, prosciutto, chicken and seasonings). It took a pretty sophisticated mind to create a pasta that allows sauces or broths not only to flow around it (as with more conventional filled pastas), but also through it.

Who first dreamed up this profound little pasta? Legend says back in the days when the gods walked the earth, Venus paused for the night at a small inn near Bologna. Just before dawn, the enamored innkeeper peeked into the goddess' bedroom and was overwhelmed by her beauty. The only worthy tribute the humble man could pay was creating the tortellino -- fashioned after Venus' navel.

Bolognese culinary historians are legion and rarely agree, but most admit tortellini probably came into being during the Renaissance. Remember those were the days of at least 50 busy hands in every kitchen and a "can-you-top-this" approach to entertaining. No doubt chefs vied constantly to produce the newest, the most imaginative -- just as they do today. The odd, little pasta probably was born of this competitive spirit. Certainly by the 18th century tortellini were firmly afloat in just about everyone's bowl of capon broth, and being tossed into pasticcii much like ours.

Although making your own tortellini was originally part of this culinary bacchanal, in the interest of a lone cook's sanity, do buy them ready made. Just make sure they're fresh and meat filled, and that the pasta is so sheer you can detect the filling. Dried, boxed tortellini won't make the grade.

If Bolognese food folk question the tortellino's origins, they all but come to blows over the "real" Ragu Bolognese. This blending of meat, aromatic vegetables, wine, tomato and milk raised such debate in Bologna several years ago that the city's newspapers were full of fast and furious exchanges between cooks, hobbyists and historians over which was the true Ragu Bolognese. My own recipe sidesteps the controversy, evolving from several different variations. It also disregards one ragu tradition. Old recipes are quite high in fat. No doubt everyone went out and plowed the north 40 after dinner. Not so today, so this rendition eliminates as much fat as possible.

Tiny balls of ground beef, chicken and parmesan give meaty accent to the pie and might have evolved from the sweetbreads used long ago in pasticcii.

The cinnamon custard is the great clue to the pasticcio's Renaissance origins and probably Middle Eastern roots. Spices and sugar came west with Venetian traders who started plying Middle Eastern ports at the time of the Crusades. The use of sugar and spices in main dishes was rampant during the Renaissance years. The custard seems to gently echo those days and is the secret of the pasticcio's success. It subtlety scents the pie, while having a remarkable catalytic effect on all the other flavors.

The importance of using sweet as a foil for savory is underscored by the crust. Pasta Frolla (or sweet flaky pastry) is still used in almost every first course or main dish pie in Emilia-Romagna.

Simple peasant food this is not. A dish for sumptuous celebration, the pasticcio is perfect for a sit-down dinner or as the centerpiece of a buffet. As part of our Christmas feast, it was preceeded by an antipasto of pears sprinkled with a little balsamic vinegar and arranged over thin slices of prosciutto; followed by cups of homemade chicken broth seasoned with orange rind, shallots and allspice (the pasticcio should be served alone accompanied by only a good sangiovese or bardolino).

Afterward came a simple salad of winter greens and then chunks of parmesan and raw fennel for the last of the wine. Dessert was an assortment of store-bought Italian sweets, including the ancient fruit and nut cake, Panforte di Siena, amaretti cookies, nuts for cracking, bowls of grapes and lady apples, and a cool bottle of moscato d'asti.

Each component of the pasticcio should be done in advance and would be delicious on its own. Allow about 40 minutes for assembly and an hour and 40 minutes from when you put it in the oven to serving time. Don't be put off by what seems to be a gargantuan task. Done in advance, in easy stages, this is really much less complicated that most dinner party menus. PASTICCIO DI TORTELLINI (10 servings)

Butter for greasing

Pastry Dough (recipe below)

Flour for rolling dough

Ragu sauce (recipe below)

Meatballs (recipe below)

2 pounds meat-filled tortellini cooked in 8 quarts boiling broth or water and drained

Cream sauce (recipe below)

About 1 1/2 cups freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

2 eggs, beaten

Cinnamon custard (recipe below)

Butter an 11-inch springform pan, making sure to butter rim. Roll out 2/3 of the pastry dough to about 1/8-inch thickness and line pan, leaving a 1-inch overhang around rim. Roll out remaining dough and cut a 13-inch round. Use trimmings to do leaf cutouts for decoration. Chill disk of pastry on a cookie sheet along with springform pan while you gently warm up the ragu and meatballs.

Remove the pastry from the refrigerator and heat oven to 400 degrees. Make a layer of half the meatballs in the bottom of the springform pan. Gently combine about 2/3 of the ragu (the remainder could be frozen for saucing other pastas) with the tortellini, adding the reduced cream sauce, about half the parmesan with about 2/3 of the beaten egg. When well blended, spread half the mixture over the meatballs, gently patting the tortellini in between the meatballs. Top with remaining meatballs and a generous sprinkling of parmesan. Then add the other half of the tortellini, patting down gently. Now spread the cinnamon custard over the tortellini. With the remaining beaten egg, brush the 1-inch overhang of pastry. Top with pastry disc, pressing the edges together. Roll the edges in over the rim so that it is free and crimp the edges. Brush the top of the pie with beaten egg, arrange the leaves of dough in a decorative pattern and make a few cuts into the top to allow steam to escape. Brush leaves with egg and place the pasticcio on a baking sheet. Set in lower third of the oven and bake 40 minutes. Lower heat to 350 degrees and bake another 40 minutes. If edges of crust become too dark, cover with strips of foil. Let the pasticcio stand 10 minutes at room temperature or leave in turned-off oven, with door open, up to 20 minutes. Then release the sides of the springform, place the pie on a large platter and serve. RAGU SAUCE

Do up to four days ahead.

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

3/4 cup minced carrot

3/4 cup minced celery

1 cup minced onion

3 ounces thinly sliced pancetta (rolled, dry-cured Italian bacon), chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

3/4 to 1 pound chicken thighs, skinned, boned and finely chopped

1/2 pound mild Italian sausage meat prepared without fennel

1/2 pound chicken giblets, minced

1/2 pound lean beef, minced

2 bay leaves

1 cup dry white wine

2 1/2 cups homemade meat stock

3 tablespoons tomato paste

3 to 4 tablespoons milk

Salt and pepper to taste

Note: Ideally meats should be minced by hand rather than ground. This makes for better browning and final texture of the sauce.

In a large, heavy, nonaluminum skillet, heat oil and butter over medium heat. Add chopped vegetables and pancetta. Cook, stirring frequently, until starting to brown. Add the garlic, chicken, meats and bay leaves. Turn heat to high and cook, breaking up chunks, until meats start to brown. Adjust heat to avoid burning the brown glaze developing at bottom of pan and continue cooking until well browned. Then tip pan and spoon off all fat. Add wine, scraping up brown bits from bottom of pan, and slowly evaporate to a glaze. Add 1/2 cup of the stock and slowly let it evaporate. Stir in another 1/2 cup of stock and evaporate. This process builds lovely layers of taste. Then stir in remaining 1 1/2 cups of stock and tomato paste and turn the sauce into a 3 1/2- to 4-quart saucepan. Simmer, uncovered, about 20 minutes or until stock has reduced by about 1/3 and sauce is moist but not loose. Add milk and simmer about 10 minutes. Season to taste, cool and refrigerate. CINNAMON CUSTARD (Makes about 3 cups)

Do three days ahead.

4 egg yolks

5 tablespoons sugar

3 scant tablespoons flour

Dash salt

2 cups scalded hot milk

2 tablespoons butter

2 generous pinches cinnamon or to taste

In a heavy, nonaluminum saucepan whisk yolks and sugar until light colored. Blend in flour and salt. Slowly pour scalded hot milk into egg mixture, whisking vigorously. Once well blended, set over medium heat and stir constantly with wooden spatula until cream comes to a simmer. Continue cooking at a gentle simmer, stirring constantly, until thickened and the custard has no raw flour taste. Pour through a strainer into a storage container. Stir in butter and cinnamon. Let cool and then lay a film of plastic wrap over top of custard, cover and refrigerate. PASTRY DOUGH

Do two days ahead.

3 1/3 cups all-purpose unbleached flour

1 cup cake flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon grated lemon rind

1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 3 tablespoons butter, cut into chunks

2 egg yolks

3 whole eggs

5 to 8 tablespoons dry white wine

Combine dry ingredients in a food processor. Add butter and process until consistency of coarse cornmeal. Beat yolks, eggs and 5 tablespoons of the wine and add. Process with on/off motion until dough begins to form small clumps. If too dry, sprinkle with more wine. Wrap dough and chill. Remove from refrigerator about 20 minutes before rolling. MEATBALLS

Do one day in advance.

2 to 3 ounces Italian parmigiano-reggiano cheese, cut into chunks

6 well-packed tablespoons Italian parsley leaves

1 large clove garlic

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped

2 chicken thighs (about 8 ounces), skinned, boned and cut into chunks

6 ounces thinly sliced pancetta, chopped

10 ounces lean ground beef

2 teaspoons tomato paste

1/4 cup dry bread crumbs

1 egg

Salt and pepper to taste

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons dry porcini mushrooms, broken and soaked in 1 cup hot water

In a food processor, grate cheese. Add parsley, garlic and onion and process until minced. Add chicken and pancetta and process until finely ground. Add beef and process just a second or two. Turn into a bowl and blend in remaining ingredients except for oil and mushrooms. Shape into 3/4- to 1-inch balls. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add half the meatballs and brown well on all sides until crusty. Take care when turning them, as they're fragile. Repeat with second batch and drain on paper towels. Turn into a storage container. Pour all fat from pan and add mushrooms and their strained liquid. Boil down, scraping up brown bits in pan until almost a glaze. Add to meatballs, cool and refrigerate. CREAM SAUCE (Makes 1 cup)

Do one day ahead.

1 1/2 cups whipping cream

Salt and white pepper to taste

Freshly grated nutmeg to taste

In a heavy nonaluminum saucepan simmer cream until reduced to 1 cup. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste, pour through a strainer and refrigerate.