BILLERICA — Sisters Goldi DeVito and Lucy Ovoian are standing at a counter in DeVito’s bright kitchen, aprons donned, hands floured. They’re rolling out rounds of dough for lamejun, 7-inch open-faced Armenian meat pies (sometimes called Armenian pizzas), which will be covered with ground lamb, crushed tomatoes, herbs, and spices.
The two learned to make lamejun from an unlikely source: their Irish mother, Anne Ryan Ovoian. Anne and her husband, John, whose Armenian family emigrated from Istanbul in the 1920s, lived in Watertown near his parents, Margaret and Koren. The young daughter-in-law, raised on typical Irish fare, learned Armenian cooking, some from a book a local church published in the 1960s. A family favorite was lamejun, which they made — and the daughters still do — assembly-line fashion.
Lamejun cooks quickly in a 500-degree oven. DeVito, 59, peels away the plastic wrap that covers a bowl of seasoned raw lamb, which will be the topping. “I mix the meat the night before and keep it in the fridge so all those spices have a chance to marinate and make the meat tastier,” she explains.
“Smell that!” she announces, as the bowl releases aromas of garlic and allspice. Ovoian, 61, who lives in Woburn, prepares her lamb about an hour before baking. “I think it’s fine,” she whispers.
For years, DeVito, who owns a residential cleaning service, has been buying lamb from Francis Food Mart in Watertown. She insists that lean leg of lamb is the best meat to use. Francis’s owner and butcher Rolando Caira grinds it for her to order. “It has almost no fat at all,” he says.
The gregarious sisters tease each other as they divide the yeast dough into 12 pieces, roll them between their palms into plump balls and cover them individually with squares of wax paper for a 15-minute rest. Ovoian, who is a claims biller, caresses the dinged, honey-colored wood of their mother’s old rolling pin as she flattens and flips the dough into rustic circles. The sisters reminisce about family holidays, when their grandmother’s huge stockpot, set by the door, was filled with warm lamejun for guests to nibble as they entered the house.
DeVito measures out mounds of the lamb mixture and sets them on the rounds. She spreads the meat evenly over the surface to within ¼ inch of the edges. Afterward, she holds out her hands, and says “See? No grease. I told you this lamb is really lean.” The pies go on baking sheets, then into the hot oven for 12 minutes.
And then, a confession: DeVito admits that she rarely makes the dough from scratch anymore. Several years ago she and her husband, Stephen, their four children, and several other members of the DeVito family moved to Washington state for a brief time. “Everyone wanted lamejun, but it was so much work. I started experimenting with alternatives to making the dough. And I found it: soft tortilla shells. They were perfect.” She’s settled on Mission brand wheat tortillas. “I called Lucy and told her to put away the rolling pin!”
Says Ovoian: “I make over 100 every Christmas and this makes a big difference.” She tried to take a break once from making the lamejun, but her four adult children would have none of it. They declared it a tradition and now they help her.
The kitchen smells of spiced meat as each batch is baked and emerges from the oven. The meat separates slightly as it cooks. DeVito and Ovoian stack them so the meat sides face each other. “That way the hot meat doesn’t stick to the dough,” says Ovoian. It’s the way you see lamejun sold in Middle Eastern markets.
They freeze well and need no defrosting to reheat. DeVito sets a freshly cooked lamejun on a plate, steam rising. “I like to squeeze a little fresh lemon juice on top. It goes well with the lamb.”
“Not me,” says her sister. They each take a bite and agree that there is nothing like their Irish mother’s lamejun.