Easter in Italy is a Christian based holiday, which begins on Palm Sunday, and culminates the following week on Easter Sunday. Although all of Holy Week is important, it is Easter Sunday when the real festivities begin to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Easter week, or Holy Week is celebrated in many diverse ways across Italy, reflecting regional differences, and originating from religion, peasant lore and even pagan influences. Easter Sunday often begins with morning mass, and then much of the day is spent by feasting with family and friends. After a long somber Lenten period which consists of 40 days of fasting and prayers, everyone looks forward to the traditional holiday dishes enjoyed Easter Sunday. Although the fasting is not observed as strictly as it once was, some effort during Lent is often made to cut down on meats, eggs, cheese and sweets. Because of this, the feasting Easter Sunday commonly involves rich foods that had been eliminated during the Lenten period.
I have always known that Easter was a “moveable feast”, and that its date changed each year but I was very interested in learning how the date each year was chosen. It turned out to be quite complicated, and you can learn more about it here if you are interested. Basically, the short answer is that Easter Sunday is the date of the annual celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The aim of the Easter Dating Method is to maintain, for each Easter Sunday, the same season of the year and the same relationship to the preceding astronomical full moon that occurred at the time of his resurrection in 30 A.D.- Easter Sunday, from 326 A.D. is always one of the 35 dates March 22 to April 25. I won’t go into the exact method used to do this as it would take much too long, but the whole system which has been used since 325 A.D.is still used today.
Although the Easter table may vary greatly from region to region across Italy, there are some basic elements that are commonly found everywhere. Eggs are considered a symbol or renewal and life, and feature prominently in the day’s dishes, in both soups such as Brodetto Pasquale, a broth-based Easter soup thickened with eggs, and in many breads, both sweet and savory. Lamb is the symbol of birth and the shepherd, and both lamb and kid are commonly found on Easter menus, usually roasted or grilled on a spit. Other symbols that may be brought into the Easter feast are the cross which symbolizes resurrection which some breads are shaped into, and the dove symbolizing peace which the famous Easter sweet bread the Columba Pasquale is shaped as. Many other dishes commonly found on Italian tables each Easter are seasonal specialties that highlights the season’s finest fresh produce such as artichokes, asparagus, baby peas and fava beans which overflow local market stands in all their glory.
Every region seems to have its own particular version of Easter pie, made with eggs, which reflect fertility, and cheese, and my version of Torta Pasqualina is similar to what you would find in Liguria. Torta della Pasqualina, is another rich pie that contains ricotta cheese, eggs, and a selections of cold meats and cheeses. In Campania, the specialty is called Pizza Rustica, and in Umbria, Torta di Pasqua. These pies or tortas often contain greens as well as ricotta and other vegetables. Most Italian families will also make a number of traditional sweets each Easter season, including the very popular sweet breads found across Italy each year. Some of these breads include Pupi con L’uova which are doll shaped breads made for children, and the Columba, a dove shaped sweet bread similar to Panettone.
Although chocolate bunnies are not typical, across Italy storefronts are packed with beautifully wrapped chocolate eggs that are given as gifts each Easter. They can range in size from very small, to huge and heavy, but typically they all contain a little gift or surprise in them. Desserts for Easter can vary from region to region as well, but often contain ricotta cheese as well, like the famous La Pastiera Napoletana. This sweet cheese pie is made with cooked grain, and is flavored with lemon or orange. Other rich, sweet ricotta based cheesecakes or pies are popular in many regions.
Easter Monday, is known as Pasquetta, or Little Easter, and is also a holiday celebrated with family which brings the Easter season to an end. Often Easter leftovers are enjoyed in a more informal setting, or everyone heads outside to enjoy the spring warmth and picnics with family and friends.