“Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi,” as the Italian proverb goes, “Christmas with your relatives, Easter with whomever you want”. But spending time with family turns out to be the way most people choose to enjoy their Easter holiday. While spring rites are observed in all cultures, Easter in Italy is a Christian-based holiday, beginning on Palm Sunday, and culminating the following week on Easter Monday. Holy Week is celebrated in diverse ways across Italy, reflecting regional differences, with various traditions derived from religion, peasant lore, and pagan influences. At least as big a holiday as Easter Sunday itself is Pasquetta, or Little Easter, which is Easter Monday.
As with all Italian holidays, food plays a key part in the celebrations. Especially after the 40 days of fasting for the Lenten period, everyone looks forward to the traditional Easter dishes. Although the fasting is not observed as strictly as it once was, most people make some effort to cut down on meat and sweets. Because of this, the feasting on Easter Sunday commonly involves rich foods that had been eliminated during Lent.
Although the Italian Easter table varies regionally, there are some elements that can be found everywhere. Carol Field writes in her wonderful book, Celebrating Italy, that “Since 1500 the food of Easter has been the food of the Last Supper, the ultimate meal in gastronomy and history: Lamb (the symbol of Christ), bread (from grain, the gift of Demeter), and wine (the blood of the earth, Dionysius’ contribution).”
Most everyone eats baby lamb (abbacchio) or kid (capretto) flavored with rosemary and garlic. It may be roasted or grilled on a spit; cooked in a fricassee with lemon, egg yolks and parsley; served cacciatore style; or made into a sauce for pasta.
Many other savory dishes reflect the fresh green color of springtime. Fava beans, asparagus, artichokes, baby peas, spring field greens, and dandelion greens overflow the market stands. In northern Italy, pies or tortas contain ricotta and seasonal greens, the most famous of which comes from Liguria. Called “torta pasqualina,” this pastry once consisted of 33 layers of dough (one for each year of Jesus’ life) stretched as fine as phyllo pastry, and enfolding a vegetable filling with eggs. Now, one is more likely to find 12 to 18 layers of dough (see recipe).
Eggs—for good luck and to ensure eternal life
Since eggs are a symbol of hope, bringing forth new life from within their delicate shells, they are an obvious symbol of Easter. Eating an egg at the end of Lent is a proclamation of the end of a period of abstinence. Hence, eggs are featured in dishes both savory and sweet, often baked whole into these dishes, proclaiming the rebirth of life and a renewed world after the bleak winter months.
In the south of Italy, sweet and savory ricotta pies are enriched with eggs. In Boston’s North End, it wouldn’t be Easter without a savory ricotta tart called pizza rustica or pizza chiena in Neapolitan dialect (see recipe). A slightly sweet, flaky egg-enriched crust surrounds a salty filling of ricotta, Parmigiana and mozzarella cheeses, with chopped pieces of prosciutto, salami and mortadella. Also adored by the Neapolitans is a sweet ricotta Easter cake called pastiera, whose exotic ingredients are a reminder of the past, when Phoenicians, Romans, Crusaders and Arabs would come into Naples harbor with their bounty of spices and flavorings. In this somewhat labor-intensive but magnificent cake, thin, sweet flaky dough is baked with a filling of soft wheat berries (reminders of the rebirth that comes with spring) cooked in milk, and added to ricotta that has been enriched with pastry cream, flavored with cinnamon and candied orange peel, and scented with rose or orange flower water.
While the pastiera is typically Neapolitan, the columba pasquale belongs to all of Italy. This sweet bread has a dough almost identical to panettone, but it’s flavored with candied orange peel and shaped like a dove, the symbol of peace. This bread is covered with an almond glaze, decorated with whole almonds and turbinado sugar. Although this national Easter bread is made industrially in Italy and shipped all over the world, Maria’s Pastry in the neighborhood offers a homemade version.
All of the bakeries also display sweet breads decorated with icing, sugar sprinkles and whole eggs in their shells. Known as casatiello, this bread is savory and spicy in some regions of Italy, with chunks of salami and freshly ground venison, but the North End version is always sweet. This simple, sweet yeast dough can be baked into a ring or a small roll. Whole eggs in their shells are inserted into the dough before baking. These are often held in place by 2 strips of dough, symbolic of the cross. As the bread bakes, the eggs become hard cooked.
Italians rarely color hard-boiled eggs, nor do they have chocolate bunnies or pastel marshmallow chicks, but the biggest displays in bars, pastry shops, supermarkets and chocolatiers are brightly wrapped uova di Pasqua (chocolate Easter eggs) in sizes that range from robins eggs to large enough to pose problems carrying them out of the store. We find dark or milk chocolate, plain or sugar decorated. Most eggs are hollow and often have a present or surprise (sorpresa) inside. Most are produced in confectionary industries and hold candy, trinkets or costume jewelry. Some, however, are specially commissioned and hand-made by artisanal chocolatiers. As an expression of love to a family member, or as a promise to marry, these could have diamond rings, perfume, watches, airline tickets, car keys or expensive jewelry. As you wander the shops in Boston’s “Little Italy”, you’ll see these brightly colored foil-wrapped industry produced uove di Pasqua hanging from ceilings and stacked on shelves in every store.
As in Sicily, the North End pastry shop windows display enchanting Easter lambs (le pecorelle) made of marzipan (almond paste). Some are even decorated with icing, piped to look like fluffy fleece.
Whether one alone or a family of lambs on a cardboard plate, they are always seated on a green grass carpet, with a painted red bow around their necks, often holding red flags to symbolize the resurrection. These are not just pretty works of art but are, indeed, served in little morsels after Easter dinner.
The celebration of Easter does not end in Italy on Easter Sunday. Little Easter, Pasquetta, or Lunedi dell’Angelo, as Easter Monday is known, is an Italian national holiday and as big an occasion as the day that precedes it. Entire cities empty out; newspapers don’t publish; everyone goes to the countryside for a ritual picnic. Tablecloths are spread out and baskets full of delectables spill out onto multiple platters with feasting continuing through the whole afternoon. Eating and relaxing in the warm spring sun and watching the herbs and plants return to life reflects a pleasure as old as life itself–eating outdoors–a wonderful welcome to spring.
Remember, this is a mere sampling of the Easter traditions of Italy. Just as each family has its own culinary style, so too the various regions, towns, and villages have their own signature foods. Make this holiday a tradition in your family and celebrate peace, love and a new beginning!