Lamb, An Italian Springtime Tradition

Savoring a fresh, roasted lamb with a glass of local red wine in the open air, under a flowering arbor is one of the miracles of springtime in Italy.

For many Italians, Easter without lamb on their table is hard to imagine. The tradition of eating lamb at Pasqua (Easter, in Italian)—the most important religious celebration of the year in Italy—is strongly rooted in history. The lamb (“agnello,” in Italian) is an important symbol in many religions, but especially in Christianity. The image of the lamb appears in some of the most treasured Renaissance masterpieces—Da Vinci’s “Madonna and St. Anne,” for example—and the symbol of a lamb is represented in thousands of ecclesiastical images, as well as secular emblems, seals and flags all over the world. The custom of eating lamb at important religious feasts goes back thousands of years, spanning many cultures and religions, especially in the regions around the Mediterranean Sea.

In Italy, the most sought-after lamb for Easter is the agnello da latte (milk-fed lamb)—in the regions of Lazio and Abruzzo, it’s also called abbacchio—which is a four-week-old lamb, exclusively nourished by its mother’s milk. At the market, these lambs usually weigh less than 20 pounds, and the meat has a light pink color and an exquisite taste. In recent years, older lambs—up to a year old—are more in demand in Italy; this meat is very lean, richer in proteins and generally more nutritious than that of the younger ones.                          
In Italy, one of the most beloved preparations is for costolette d’agnello (lamb chops)—marinated (sometimes) and then grilled. The most renowned recipe for grilled lamb is Abbacchio alla scottadito (see recipe), which was originally made famous in Rome. This recipe—which means “lamb that burns the fingers”—is also prepared in many parts of central Italy—such as Abruzzo, Umbria, Marche, and throughout Lazio. Agnello—particularly the cosciotto (leg) or spalla (shoulder)—is also delicious baked with rosemary (see recipe), or first marinated in lemon and then roasted. Other parts of the lamb, particularly from the forequarter, are often used in stews (spezzatini), or in ragù d’agnello (lamb meat sauces). Stewed or roasted lamb meat is also used as a filling for pasta or cannelloni.

For Pasqua, in the rural areas of central and southern Italy, it is still common to slowly roast whole lambs outside, over an open fire or smoldering coals, or in wood-burning ovens normally used for bread. When the lamb is ready, a plate of succulent meat is beautifully presented often accompanied by roasted potatoes. Naturally, this exquisite lamb course is preceded and followed by other special dishes: antipasti, pasta, vegetables, desserts and a local wine. In order to enjoy the freshest, organically raised lamb and other delicacies, on Pasquetta—the day after Easter, which is major holiday in Italy—it is very common for family and friends to go out of town and into the countryside to a favorite trattoria (restaurant) or to an agriturismo—a farm that offers accommodations and authentic traditional foods often made entirely from regional produce. Savoring a fresh, roasted lamb with a glass of local red wine—in the open air, under a flowering arbor—is one of the miracles of springtime in Italy.