Traditionally, Easter (Pasqua in Italian) marks the end of the long, lean period of privation during Lent, a time when foods such as meat, eggs, butter, and lard were not eaten. And so the holiday was an occasion for an abundant and indulgent feast—though, really, what Italian holiday isn't?
Even though Lent is no longer as strictly observed as it once was, Easter is still time for celebration, especially at the table. A popular Italian expression, "Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi," means "Christmas with your parents, Easter with whomever you want." In other words, it's traditional to spend Christmas (Natale) with family, but Easter (though it probably still involves family, as most Italian holidays do), is a bit looser, and you're free to celebrate it with your friends. But no matter who joins you at your table, there will most likely be certain dishes presented at an Italian Easter meal.
A traditional Italian Easter meal might start off with a soup, such as the Naples classic that has become popular throughout the world, Italian wedding soup. Originally a peasant dish, made by using whatever meat and greens were leftover, this quintessential Italian soup has become ubiquitous with holiday and celebratory meals. The name, minestra maritata, means "married soup," referring to the flavors blending together. However, the English translation turned it into Italian wedding soup, giving the impression the dish is saved for matrimonial celebrations.
Eggs—both dyed and cooked—are an important part of the Italian Easter celebration as they are a symbol of renewal and rebirth. You will find them in dishes such as a torta pasqualina, an Easter pie made of eggs, ricotta, and chard that is popular in Liguria, as well as a brodetto pasquale, which is similar to a frittata. This dish from the Basilicata region incorporates eggs with lamb and asparagus, although the original recipe uses wild cardoons, a vegetable that can be hard to find.
Another symbol of spring is the lamb, and you will find this type of meat on many an Italian Easter table. It may be in the form of agnello atta scottadito, Italian grilled lamb chops with juniper berries, or you may be served braised lamb shanks, Italian-style.
In true Italian style, cooks will create vegetable dishes using whatever is fresh at the market or in the garden. And, seeing that Easter signals the beginning of spring, the selection will most likely be, to name a few, artichokes, asparagus, and a type of chicory called ciccoria, which may be hard to find in the U.S. Stuffed artichokes are a favorite way to prepare this vegetable, either with garlic-cheese breadcrumbs or with a meat stuffing.
Southern Italians make many types of elaborate savory Easter breads which often incorporate meats, cheeses, and whole eggs in their shell. The casatiello from Naples is one such bread, baked into a ring topped with whole eggs. The casatiello of the Liguria region was traditionally made with 33 thin layers of dough, one for each year of Jesus's life.
A simple, braided bread is also traditional at Italian Easter meals. Scented with anise and lemon, it definitely has a characteristic Italian flavor. There are many sweet Easter breads, as well, the most widespread being the colomba, a dove-shaped sweet yeast bread topped with slivered almonds and crunchy pearl sugar, rather similar in texture and flavor to the classic Italian Christmas cake, panettone. The colomba originated in the Lombardy region but is now popular throughout Italy and in Italian communities abroad.
Sweets and Desserts
A well-known Easter dessert is the pastiera Napoletana, so popular that now it is eaten year-round. It's creamy ricotta and semolina cake flavored with lemon zest and orange-blossom water, and traditionally made with wheat berries (symbolizing fertility) and candied orange peel. This version is lighter, faster (the traditional version takes several days to make), and crust-free, and has raisins instead of wheat berries.
Another classic ending to the Italian holiday meal is a Florentine Easter cake or schiacciata. It is tinged with orange flavor from the fresh juice and zest, and can be filled with pastry cream or whipped cream, as well as enjoyed simply as is dusted with confectioner's sugar.
And for the children, the most popular Easter treat is hollow chocolate eggs containing toy surprises.