“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.
As with all Italian holidays, food plays a key part in the celebrations. 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. Since eggs are a symbol of hope, bringing forth new life from within their delicate shells, they are an obvious symbol of Easter. 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. All of our local 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 cubes of provolone cheese, 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. As in Sicily, the North End pastry shop windows also display enchanting Easter lambs (le pecorelle) made of marzipan (almond paste). Some are even decorated with icing, piped to look like fluffy fleece. These are not just pretty works of art but are, indeed, served in little morsels after Easter dinner.
Italians rarely color hard-boiled eggs, nor do they have chocolate bunnies or pastel marshmallow chicks, but the most treasured Easter sweet is a brightly wrapped uova di Pasqua (chocolate Easter eggs) that can range in size from a robins egg to large enough to pose problems carrying it out of the store. Most eggs are hollow and often have a present or surprise (sorpresa) inside, such as candy, trinkets or costume jewelry. As you wander the shops in Boston’s “Little Italy”, you’ll see these brightly colored foil-wrapped uove di Pasqua hanging from ceilings and stacked on shelves in every store.
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!
The only thing that Pizza Rustica has in common with pizza is the name. It’s a savory meat and cheese pie baked in a sweet egg pastry, called pasta frolla. The dish’s origin is around Naples and it’s a traditional Easter dish.
- 2 C. flour
- 2 egg yolks
- pinch salt
- 8 T. butter, cut into small pieces
- 3 T. ice water
- 2 T. sugar
Mix all ingredients; knead briefly, preferably on a cold surface. Shape into a ball, wrap in wax paper, and refrigerate for at least one hour.
- 2 egg yolks
- 3/4 lb. ricotta (1 1/4 C)
- 1/4 lb. prosciutto (cured or cooked), or salami, chopped coarsely
- 1/4 lb. mortadella, chopped
- 1/4 lb. mozzarella, cut up in small pieces
- 2 T grated Parmigiano
- Season to taste with salt & pepper (S & P)
- Beat egg yolks in a bowl; add the ricotta, beat until creamy. Add the meats, cheese, S & P. Mix thoroughly.
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Thickly butter the inside of a 1-quart soufflé dish or ovenproof ceramic dish.
- Cut off 1/3 of the pastry dough and, over wax paper, roll it into a circle large enough to line the bottom of the baking dish and come up a little on the sides. Fit into the dish. Cut off another 1/3 of the dough and roll into rectangular strips as wide as the dish is deep. Line the sides of the dish with these strips, overlapping if necessary. Smooth with your fingers and seal all the seams.
- Pour all of the filling into the dish. Press lightly to remove air bubbles. Roll out the rest of the dough into a disk large enough to cover the top. Place it over the filling and press the edges tightly against the side lining to form a tight seal. Trim the dough where it comes up higher than 1/2 inch above the top of the pizza; fold the rest of it down. Smooth all rough connections with a moistened fingertip.
- Place in the upper level of the oven and bake 45 minutes until the top has turned a golden brown. Do not open the door during this time. If after 45 minutes the crust is not brown enough, turn up the heat to 400°F and bake for another 6-8 minutes.
- When cool, serve directly from the baking dish or unmold by inverting onto a plate. Serve warm (not hot) or at room temperature.
Adapted from More Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.
First published “The North End News” April 4, 2007
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