Celebrating Easter, or Pasqua, is one of the most joyous occasions of the year. Everyone, regardless of religious persuasion, enjoys this springtime banquet. Flowers seem to magically pop up everywhere, the first delicious vegetables begin to sprout, fruit trees begin to blossom and the sun shines longer and brighter every day. Though Pasqua is considered the most important religious event of the year in Italy—rivaling Christmas in its religious and cultural importance—this is also a primal celebration of the end of winter and nature’s rebirth.
In Italy, Easter Sunday is a nationally observed holiday, but the Monday immediately after is also a national holiday, called Pasquetta (literally “Little Easter”) or Lunedì dell’Angelo (Angel’s Monday). The usual custom on Pasquetta is to go out—usually for a picnic; though, many choose to eat at a restaurant, a friend’s or relative’s instead. There is a famous saying in Italy: “Natale con i tuoi. Pasqua con chi vuoi.” In English: “Christmas with your family. Easter with whomever you like.” Often, this holiday includes a road trip; nowadays, many Italians spend Easter holidays in Paris, London, Prague and other exotic locales.
This doesn’t mean Easter has lost its religious significance in Italy. During the forty days of Lent, many Italians still abstain from meat and other pleasures. During Holy Week, more than 3,000 symbolic enactments are staged. From the northern regions to the southern tip of Italy, there are countless processions, rites, popular feasts, traditions and sacred performances. On Venerdì Santo, or Holy Friday, the inhabitants of hundreds of villages slowly make their way along ancient roads—sometimes in bare feet—carrying torches to commemorate the Passion. Many fast on or abstain from eating meat on this day. But, on Pasqua the solemnity and abstinence of Holy Week come to a joyous end!
The feast on Easter Sunday is a culmination of weeks of religious rituals as well as homage to spring. Typically, in Italy, the Pasqua table is vibrant with the fresh colors of early spring—decorated with flowers or peach tree stems and beautiful, colored boiled eggs. The season’s freshest vegetables will all play a part in the feast to come:
Just as Pasquetta is a time to venture beyond one’s own walls, Easter feasts encourage an adventurous spirit in the kitchen. At Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Italians are likely to stick to traditional dishes, but, at Pasqua, there is much more diversity. There is no typical antipasto or even primo piatto (first course) for Pasqua. But, since this is the season for early produce, young cured meats and cheeses, these are usually served in some form. Some popular first course dishes include: Fried Artichokes, Insalata di Polpo (Octopus Salad), swordfish or tuna seasoned with grapefruit and generous platters of young pecorino, fava beans and salumi.
In many homes of every region, various kinds of Torte Pasqualine (savory Easter pies) are prepared—using flour, eggs, cheese, herbs, and sometimes a variety of other ingredients. There are also sweet torte, like Torta di Ricotta (Ricotta Cake). The many different versions of Torte di Pasqua seen at Easter are testimony to the creativity encouraged on this holiday.
Other popular pasta dishes for Easter are Lasagna, in all its varieties, and Baked Pasta, for which every household in Italy has a different recipe. Those who have the time and skill to prepare homemade pasta might make their own local specialty (such as, orecchiette, cavatelli or pici), or stuffed pastas as ravioli or tortelloni. A great alternative to pasta, which is always hard to refuse when cooked well, is risotto made with very fresh seafood, baby peas or asparagus.
Pasqua: Main Course
For secondo (the main course), roasted or grilled meat is usually served. For centuries, the most popular choice for Easter has been lamb—not just in Italy, but in many other Mediterranean and European countries too. We don’t know exactly how the “sacrificial lamb” is prepared in the papal palace, but we know that, in Rome, they love their lamb marinated with lemon and rosemary and then roasted. Another typical Roman recipe is succulent Grilled Lamb Chops served with roasted potatoes and artichokes. Amazing lamb stews are prepared for Pasqua, the sauce duly put aside to season the ravioli or fresh pasta served the next day, on Pasquetta. In Tuscany, lamb is slowly braised with onions and carrots, then served with seasoned cannellini beans. In the Puglia region, boiled lamb is served with fresh herbs and vegetables. In Trentino, they fry delicious polpettine (little meatballs) made with ground lamb, scallions, parsley and rosemary. In vegetarian households, the symbolism of the “sacrificial lamb” can be represented by small lamb-shaped cakes and pastries that are eaten for dessert.
Dolci (dessert) is an important part of the Easter feast. Chocolate eggs are, of course, among the favorite. In Italy, they always contain a surprise inside for the kids. The Pastiera Napoletana is another authentic Easter tradition; originating in Naples, this cake is made with ricotta cheese, candied fruit and orange-blossom water. The PizzaPasqualina, a dessert made with cinnamon and chocolate, is a specialty of northern Lazio. In Sicily, cassata and cannoli are the traditional dessert; and in Sardinia, casadina is usually served. Pane di Pasqua (Easter Bread) is a famous Easter treat made all over Italy. Sometimes it is prepared as a dessert, other times as a savory pastry.