I’ve always considered Easter as a quintessentially Italian holiday. Most likely because it was one of the only holidays hosted at our house, organized primarily by my exaggeratedly Italian-American father. He did it like his parents did, which meant tablecloths, family, and enough fresh food to feed a small army. Our Easters were like no one else’s I knew. Our four-course Easter lunch lasted hours. Between courses the men digested with cigar breaks and bocce ball, the women with gossip and presents. Both sexes with a glass of wine in hand. We started with the antipasto. We pulled off large slices of prosciutto, salami, capocollo or spicy soppressata and wrapped each with slices of provolone. The dyed Easter eggs were served along with a tray of black and green olives, scallions, sweet pickles, bell peppers and strange mini-onion things. All of it combined enough salt to set any of the old Italians’ blood pressure soaring. After the antipasto, we began with the soup and salad. Expert homemade Italian wedding soup from my Polish grandma and the typical boring head lettuce salad that my dad loves so much, smothered in homemade Italian dressing. So much of what we ate was in Italian or had the word Italian in it, I couldn’t imagine Italy being any more authentic.
Now I’m celebrating my third Easter in Italy and I can see that so much of what I took as Italian is more accurately defined as Italian-American. That said, the fundamentals were there. My grandfather and father’s strange tendencies – always using tablecloths, eating their salads post-dinner rather than before and sweating over their vegetable garden more than their own children – are actually habits cultivated from their Italian heritage.
The main course was always heavily meat based, as if we hadn’t already had enough salt and protein for the day. After letting the kids up to play for a bit, everyone was called back to the table another time. Andiamo, Mangia! It’s time to eat! Dad either made veal and peppers, rabbit hunted by my cousins with a side of thick yellow polenta, or involtini of veal, salami and cheese smothered in a rich tomato sauce. The recipe of which had a name that became so distorted over the years it grew to be called birds, leaving young-me confused about the origin of the meat.
The four course, often four-hour, meal was polished off with dessert wine and sweets. Homemade sugar cookies in the shape of eggs and bunnies. Cake, chocolate bird nests, chocolate eggs. The holiday was so different from the more popular holidays centered around presents. While we did get an Easter basket and goodies in our Easter eggs, our Easter wasn’t about presents. It was centered around family and food.
My family’s Easter is still the exact same. Each year my aunts, uncles and cousins congregate at my parent’s house and squeeze around the already too-small table. The dishes will start passing and their voice levels will rise as the children’s excitement grows and the adult’s wine supply diminishes.
For me this is Easter, and yet here, in actual Italy, the Easter motto is Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi. Christmas with your parents, Easter with whoever you want. It’s a refreshing change in family-heavy Italy, but it also means that the set in stone Easter plans I’m so used to don’t exist.
Family members plan trips to celebrate with friends or visit opposite sides of the family, but with no trip planned for the Easter weekend, I’m missing the familiar routine of my usual Easters. Where is the family? Where are the birds, the wedding soup, the broken ears of the bunny-shaped sugar cookies?
We didn’t have set plans for Easter until Saturday afternoon, leaving too much stress for the final day and too much time to fall prey to nostalgia for my liking. We only had one sure plan: to make an Easter lunch.
Back home, we never strayed from our Easter lunch staples: meat, sliced hams and salamis, and dozens of crazy Easter eggs. Here we had free range to create whatever menu we liked. We chose traditional agnello, patate and a side of caponata. We had appetizers of Russian salad, torte salate, caprese, pinzimonio and paté di vitello. We finished the meal with fruit salad and the ever-so-apt dessert, tiramisu, meaning “pick me up!” (or cheer me up or pull me up or lift me up, however you prefer). Licking our spoons clean of the delicious tiramisu cream, I realized that the solution to my problems is always the same: food. Maybe Italians don’t stick so close to home for Easter, but there is one Easter tradition that will never be broken – that of a damn good meal.