The Italian word carnevale probably derives from the Latin expression carnem levare (meaning "to remove meat"): In many Christian societies, Carnival is the long celebratory period after Epiphany, as people prepare to give up meat and other luxuries for Lent.
History of Italy's Carnival and the Modern Revival
In the past, Carnival celebrations were especially intense in Venice, where debauched revels went on for weeks. Masks were a crucial part of Carnival, as anonymity allowed partygoers to indulge in certain illicit activities. Venetians stopped celebrating Carnival after the fall of the Republic of Venice in the late 1700s. The modern revival began in the 20th century; millions of people travel to Venice every year for the Carnival festivities. Venice is not the only Italian city to celebrate Carnival, of course. Towns throughout Northern Italy organize official Carnivals, and many of them hold parades with spectacular floats. Viareggio's Carnival is one of the most famous.
Why All This Merriment?
If you've ever spent a winter in Northern Italy, you probably understand why people celebrate Carnival. Cold air flows down from the Alps and Apennines, and mist rises up from the many waterways of the Po Valley. Winter days are dark and quiet: Everything's damp, and the thermometer stays pegged just above freezing for weeks on end. Residents need a distraction from the dreary weather, and what could be better than a party—or a month of parties?
Traditional Carnival Dishes
Of course, decadent food is a crucial part of the Carnival period. Along the Amalfi Coast and throughout much of Southern Italy, people enjoy the traditional migliaccio di polenta, a savory cornmeal cake cooked over the stove. The succulent lasagne di Carnevale is a Neapolitan dish, packed with so much expensive meat and cheese that, during Italy's poorer days, many families could only afford to make it once a year.
Throughout much of Italy, however, Carnival is an occasion for sweet pastries, usually some sort of fritter dusted in sugar, easy to cook and even easier to eat. Though these fritters have different names in different regions—chiacchiere in Lombardy, cenci in Tuscany, and frappe in Rome—they're all essentially the same dessert. A dish from the Roman Empire may be their common ancestor.
- Chiacchiere (fried dough strips)
Also called frappe or cenci, these crispy, delightful strips of fried dough are popular throughout Italy.
- Migliaccio (lemon and ricotta cake)
This wonderful Neapolitan Carnival treat gets its soft crumb from semolina flour and fresh ricotta cheese. It's like American cheesecake's lighter, fluffier cousin.
- Fritole Veneziane (Venetian Carnival fritters)
These sugar-dusted doughnuts flavored with rum and lemon zest contain pine nuts, raisins, and occasionally a custard, zabaglione, or pastry cream filling.
- Tortelli Dolci (baked sweet ravioli with ricotta and chocolate chips)
Unlike most Italian Carnival desserts, this one is baked, not fried. These delicious tortellis are a healthier alternative to cannoli.
Sicily's glorious, ricotta-filled fried wafers were originally a Carnival dessert, but they're now popular year-round.
- Pignolata (fritters with honey and pine nuts)
These small fritters are tossed in honey, then sprinkled with nuts and festive candy confetti. They're similar to struffoli, a traditional Neapolitan Christmas sweet.