According to le Monnier's Dictionary of the Italian Language, Carnevale derives from "carne levare ("remove meat"), the name of the sumptuous dinner people would hold the night before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent.
Over the years, Carnevale (or "Carnival" in English) was gradually extended to cover the entire period from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday, and some enterprising souls even go further, adding a last fling on the Sunday after Ash Wednesday, which they call Carnevalino.
The History of Carnevale vs. the Modern Revival
In the past, events were especially intense in Venice, where debauched revels went on for weeks, with the revelers donning masks based on the theory that what they did while their faces were covered didn't count. However, Venetians stopped celebrating Carnevale after the fall of their Republic in the late 1700s; under the modern revival, people are responsible for what they do while still having fun. Venice is not the only place Carnevale is celebrated, of course. Towns throughout the Peninsula organize merriment, and many of those located—unlike Venice—where there's no mist to ruin the view, hold parades with spectacular floats. Viareggio's is the most famous.
Why All This Merriment?
Well, if you've ever been in Northeastern Italy during the winter you'll understand. The cold air flows down the slopes of the Alps and Apennines, and the mist rises up from the many waterways of the Pianura Padana. There's no sun, little sound, everything's damp, and the thermometer stays pegged just above freezing for weeks on end. People need something to take their mind off of all this, and what could be better than a party—or a month of parties?
Dishes Associated With Carnevale
And, of course, people eat. There are some savory dishes associated with this time: along the Amalfi Coast and throughout much of the South there's migliaccio di polenta, made with cornmeal, sausages, and grated cheese and cooked over the stove; and Naples has the sumptuous lasagne di Carnevale. In the past, poorer Neapolitan families could only afford this lasagne once a year, which meant that every family made secret variations to the recipe, and there was a great deal of argument over whose was best. Some people no doubt greeted Lent with relief.
Throughout much of the Peninsula, however, Carnevale is an occasion for sweet pastries, usually fritters of one kind or another that are quick to make and fun to eat. There are three broad categories of these Carnival sweets throughout Italy, and though La Cucina Italiana's special Carnevale insert says they evolved independently in the various regions, we wonder. Lombard chiacchere, Tuscan cenci, and Roman frappe sound quite different but look and taste the same; considering how fragmented the regional cuisines of Italy are, these closely related recipes may all date to Roman times, the last period during which the Peninsula was unified.
- Ricotta Lasagna
More Neapolitan extravagance, a wonderful winter dish that will again stun your guests and take you all of Lent to recover from.
- Macaroni Pie
The great Italian cookbook author Pellegrino Artusi's version of a rich Emilian dish used to celebrate Carnevale. Be sure to read the story of what happened to a man who ate one all by himself.
- Fried Dough Strips (Chiacchere)
Also known as a frappe, or cenci, these crisp, lemony strips of fried dough are popular throughout Italy and are quick and easy to make.
- Limoncello-Ricotta Cake (Migliaccio)
A wonderful Carnevale treat from Naples, a quick, easy, and light cake made with semolina flour and fresh ricotta cheese. It's something like a lighter, crustless cheesecake.
- Venetian Carnival Fritters (Fritole Veneziane)
Round sugar-dusted doughnuts flavored with rum and lemon zest contain pine nuts and raisins. Sometimes they are filled with custard, zabaglione, or flavored creams,
- Baked Sweet Ravioli With Ricotta and Chocolate Chip Filling (Tortelli Dolci)
An unusual Italian Carnevale-time treat that is baked, rather than fried. They are relatively quick and easy to make, with a cannoli-like filling.
Sicily's glorious, ricotta-filled fried wafers, which were originally for Carnevale but now are wildly popular year-round.
- Sicilian Fried Sweets With Honey and Pine Nuts (Pignolata)
A ring formed out of small (about the size of a hazelnut), deep-fried balls of dough that have been tossed in hot honey. The ring is then sprinkled with nuts and colorful candy confetti or sprinkles. It's quite similar to the Neapolitan Christmas sweet known as struffoli.