Italian Easter Traditions
To many families, Easter celebrations are not complete without traditional foods that often reflect ancestral origins. As all my grandparents emigrated from Italy, our unique Easter foods reflect their southern Italian heritage, modified and Americanized through the generations.
Our Special Lunch
After sacrifices made during the 40 days of Lent leading up to Easter, which often include giving up favorite foods or desserts as well as frequent days of abstaining from meat, we always looked forward to lunchtime on the Saturday before Easter. Fiadone, more commonly known as Pizza Rustica (or rustic pizza), was our special lunch!
There are many recipes for Pizza Rustica to be found throughout southern Italy. Ours is a delicious combination of Italian cheeses (mozzarella, grated Parmigiano and Romano, and sometimes ricotta) plus diced Genoa salami, baked in an egg-rich custard with both top and bottom crusts. As it bakes, the different densities of the cheeses baking with eggs create little pockets of deliciousness between the crusts, and it becomes a wonderful celebration of family, heritage, and Spring! Both my grandmother and my mother made Fiadone, and even my English-Canadian aunt learned to make it!
Now that I am the "older generation" of my family, I have tried leaving out the salami, telling myself that this makes the Pizza Rustica "healthier", but I have come to believe that customary holiday dishes are inherently good for us – body and soul – and should not be tampered with! In fact, this dish holds so many happy family memories that my brother and I make it whenever we get together, and joke about whose is “the most authentic". I'm quite sure my grandparents would approve!
And now for the main event…
Easter dinner in my family has always been very traditional, centered around baked ham or a roasted leg of lamb and accompanied by spring peas, asparagus, and roasted potatoes. This was followed, of course, by cracking the Easter eggs we dyed, including the "special" one for our favorite uncle, colored with the ugliest concoction we could manage!
But the highlight of our Easter dinner is pastiera, a wonderful Neapolitan Easter dessert tart. According to La Cucina Italiana, "No Neapolitan Easter meal would be complete without pastiera on the table. Whole wheat berries are cooked in milk until creamy and mixed with ricotta, sugar, eggs, candied citrus and orange blossom essence for the filling. It is absolutely intoxicating." My family recipe differs slightly but has the same wonderful result!
Pastiera is started days ahead, with wheat berries that are boiled and then soaked for several days in a sweetened syrup to soften them. The wheat berries are mixed with ricotta, eggs, sugar, candied citron, grated orange peel, and a touch of nutmeg. This filling is baked in a two-crust pie with a sweetened, citrus-enhanced lattice crust.
I know that the wheat and citrus are symbolic of the abundance of the Spring season, but to my family, it is simply the best dessert in the world! Even the finest Italian pastry can't hold a candle to our Pastiera, which is truly a labor of love. Near the end of my mother's life, I brought her a Pastiera that I had labored over, and I could tell from her smile that I had "made the grade". In all my years of cooking, I have never been prouder!