As in other countries with a long history of Christian tradition, Easter is one of the two most important religious festivals in Italy, rivaling only Christmas in terms of cultural significance. First instituted by early Christians at around the second century C.E., the Easter holiday celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after he was crucified in Calvary.
Although Easter this year falls on the 20th of April, this isn’t always the case because it is a moveable festival based on the Christian liturgical calendar. The date varies every year (from March 22 to April 25), but it is always held on a Sunday. In Italy, Pasqua, as Easter is called, is a national holiday, but the Monday that follows it is also a holiday and is called Pasquetta or Little Easter.
The Italian celebration of Easter is marked with joyful festivities and feasts, a stark contrast to the solemnity and quiescence of the Holy Week, which is commemorated just right before Easter. For Christians, the Holy Week is a period of prayer, penance, and fasting – a time to reflect about the importance of the Passion of Christ in their lives. All over Italy, religious processions, church masses, and passion plays are held, and many tourists come to the country to be able to take part in these solemn celebrations. But come the Easter holidays, everything comes back to life, and the Italian kitchens are no exception!
Because Easter is a joyous occasion, there is no shortage of hearty meals and delicious desserts in Italian homes during this time. In a way, Easter in Italy is also a homage to springtime because it usually coincides with the onset of the spring season, when the bounties of the earth flourish. That’s the reason why we’re sharing some our favorite Italian Easter dishes with you.
Vegetables in season
The rebirth of nature during springtime and Easter is very much apparent in vegetable and fruit farms, where seasonal produce begin to sprout. In Italy, peas, artichokes, and asparagus are among the most popular springtime vegetables, as are fava beans, chickpeas, green beans, spinach, and chard. Fruits like cherries, lemons, and strawberries are also in season.
Italian households prepare vegetables in an infinite number of ways. Fried or sautéed artichokes are popular during Easter, while asparagus and peas are prepared with creamy sauces to complement pasta and risotto dishes. Vignarola, a vegetable stew with fava beans, artichokes, and sweet peas is a popular vegetable-based springtime dish of Roman origin, while fava e cicoria is a dish originally from the Puglia region and made from fava bean puree, chicory, and olive oil.
During Easter in Italy, lamb (abbacchio or agnello) dishes are traditionally served as main course during meals. One possible reason for this is that the lamb is an important symbol of Jesus Christ, who is known as the “Lamb of God” in Christendom. Lamb is also simply a popular springtime ingredient not just in Italy, but in other regions around the Mediterranean Sea. In any case, Italians serve a lot of lamb dishes at this time of the year, and as you can imagine, many of them are complemented by vegetables that are also in season. For instance, Easter lamb with fresh peas or agnello con piselli freschi and lamb dishes served with roasted potatoes and artichokes are common family Easter fares.
The types of dishes can also vary from region to region. In Puglia, it is not uncommon for people to serve boiled lamb with fresh seasonal vegetables and herbs. In Trentino, lamb meat is ground and seasoned with shallots, rosemary, parsley, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil to make polpettine pasquale or tiny meat balls. One of the most popular preparations of lamb, however, is the grilled variety known as abbacchio alla scottadito. The traditional recipe is of Roman origin, and its name literally means “burned fingers,” probably because Italians prefer to have it served so hot!
Easter eggs – Italian style!
You’re probably not going to see them being given around by folks in Easter bunny costumes, but eggs are still an integral part of Italian Easter and spring celebrations. In fact, long before Christianity even became the predominant religion in Europe, eggs were already revered as a symbol of rebirth. This is particularly apparent during springtime, when birds and farmed chickens would begin breeding and lay eggs. Eventually, they became an important element of the Italian Easter banquet.
It is said that in the past, hard-boiled eggs were painted red as a symbol of the blood of Christ and given as gifts during Easter Sunday. Today, Italian Easter eggs come in all colors and patterns and are often used to decorate tables.
Eggs also made their way into dishes served during the Easter holidays. For instance, it is one of the main ingredients of agnello cacio e uova, which is made with lamb, cheese, and egg, and it is also an important element of torta pasqualina (Easter pie), a light and savory Ligurian quiche made with eggs, spinach, and ricotta cheese.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Italian Easter eggs don’t have to be real eggs, though. As a matter of fact, the more popular variety these days is actually the one made of chocolate! These chocolate eggs are hallow inside, so they contain trinkets or toys and can be given as gifts which the receiver can open on the actual day of Pasqua or Pasquetta.
Easter eggs aside, there is no dearth of dolci or sweets during the Easter holidays in Italy. There is the very popular colomba pasquale (Easter dove), a traditional Easter cake with candied fruit peels and almond nuts, which is usually made in the shape of a dove, another important Christian symbol. Other old-time favorites include pastiera napoletana, which is a traditional Neapolitan cake made from wheat and ricotta cheese, and anginetti, a sort of Italian lemon drop cookies that are popular during Easter and other important occasions. One is also sure to enjoy the gubana, a dense Easter bread from the Friuli area in northeastern Italy. The gubana can have various fillings like chocolate, fruit marmalade, nuts, raisins, and candied fruit peel, although its main attraction is no doubt its special ingredient, the wine or grappa!
As they say in Italy, “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi” – Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever you want. But come to think of it, as long as you are having these delicious Italian Easter fare, it’ll be a holiday that is worth celebrating, no matter who you spend it with!