Edible Easter In Italy
“Eat, drink and be merry” should perhaps be the official slogan for Easter in Italy. After months of Lenten observance for many, Easter represents not only a celebration of Christian rebirth but of renewed human spirit for all. Just as spring itself ushers in a season of metaphorical cleansing from the doldrums of winter with warmer weather, a whirlwind of pollination and an explosion of both flora and fauna, Easter is a time of joy and revelry to be enjoyed by everyone no matter the religion or system of belief. Food is indeed a universal unifier, and regardless of the season, holiday or celebration, it is the most human conduit for rejoicing in community and tradition. An Italian Easter is no exception, and while usually a faith based jubilee, its Pasqua dishes and delicacies are a belief system in their own right.
The Easter food traditions of Italy are generally comprised of a selection of traditional dishes and ingredients that are seen echoed across the peninsula, but in various interpretations. While regional versions of classic dishes are indeed commonplace, as is the case with certain pasta and meat courses, there is a sense of commonality amongst most Italian Easter fare. Two ingredients in particular though, hold a special place at the table.
Eggs are an essential component of an Italian Easter, both symbolically and veritably through the use of the ingredient as a cornerstone of the holiday meal. Representing fertility and life, eggs are exalted in a variety of ways, from savory to sweet and everything in between. Brightly colored hard boiled eggs and eggs made of chocolate are the delight of children and adults alike, while a number of traditional Easter time dishes include egg as a key ingredient. One such dish, pizza piena (stuffed pie), is always a crowd pleaser. Usually standing at about five inches high, the massive quiche-like round of pastry encrusted deliciousness, is typically composed of eggs, cheese, cured meat and/or sausage. While variations on the piazza piena exist across the country – sometimes sweet, sometimes savory, but undoubtedly always delicious – the velvety richness of this pie makes it a welcome staple at the Easter table.
One greatly anticipated charmer of the Easter season is the Uovo di Pasqua, an oversized egg made of chocolate and filled with a surprise treat. The whimsical confection is traditionally presented to family and friends as an Easter present and are often painstakingly decorated and wrapped in brightly colored metallic foil or cellophane, adding to the festive nature of the gift.
Named after the Italian word for “dove”, Colomba Pasquale is a dessert bread baked in the shape of the symbolic bird and meant to represent a sign of peace. Made in the same method as Panettone, with a batter comprised of flour, eggs, butter, sugar and candied fruit, the bread diverges from its Christmas counterpart as it omits raisins from the recipe. The Colomba is usually topped with sugar and almonds as a finishing touch, although some versions also incorporate chocolate.
Rooted in pagan celebrations for the arrival of spring and eventually accepted into Roman Catholic festivities, pastiera has remained an iconic mainstay of Easter celebrations, particularly to the people of Naples. The pastiera in a unique dessert – a cross between a cake and a pie. The filling is characterized by a soft texture that is faintly reminiscent of cheesecake, but with more body and depth, and combines a rich blend of ricotta, eggs and egg yolks, sugar, milk, boiled wheat, cinnamon, vanilla, lemon zest and candied citrus fruits. The filling is then poured into a pastry-lined pan and strips of dough are latticed across the top. The pie is baked and usually allowed to rest before serving for optimal flavor and texture.
An ancient and revered icon for both the religious and the secular, the agnello (lamb) is an essential element of the Italian Easter meal. Milk-fed lamb with a low fat content is the preference for most lamb dishes prepared as part of the Easter feast. In Lazio and in the southern regions of Italy, lamb is most typically dressed only with rosemary and garlic, and either roasted or grilled. When served, a final squeeze of lemon juice is usually all the dish needs to bring out the flavor of the meat. In other regions of Italy, lamb is used in the creation of hearty stews featuring beans and potatoes, and in braised variations with herb infused broths and an abundance of fresh root vegetables. Lamb meatballs and pastas filled with a mixture of the meat and other ingredients, such as cheese, garlic, onion or herbs, are also commonly prepared. Along with lamb, other roasted meats like goat and pig add succulent abundance to the festive springtime menu.
For Italians, Easter is a time to rejoice through the sharing of good food and good wine with good people, whether family or friends, or both. As with most holiday celebrations in Italy, food is a manifestation of all that is glorious in life, from the sacred to the temporal. Lovingly prepared and ardently savored, the Easter meal is a fleeting, unadulterated space in time to experience a glimpse of what peace on earth might look like, for at least one delicious moment.