Traditional Italian Easter Dinner

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For many Italian families, Easter -- known in Italy as Pasuqa -- is a religious celebration that signifies the end of the 40 days of Lent. An Italian Easter feast is a springtime banquet brimming with a plethora of cuisine that varies according to the region. Although the actual recipes and preparation techniques may differ from the north to the south, Pasqua is sure to include the traditional fare of lamb, sweet bread, fresh spring vegetables and rich desserts.

Fresh Starters

  • Olives marinated in red wine vinegar, garlic and herbs are a mainstay on an appetizer tray at the beginning of any Italian holiday, and Easter is no exception. Appetizers traditionally begin the Easter feast, and in Italy, immediate family and guests are often treated to trays full of antipasto such as cured salami, mortadella and prosciutto, as well as a variety of cheeses such as pecorino, Gorgonzola, Asiago or fontina. On Easter, Italians honor the rebirth of spring by serving appetizers that feature fresh young vegetables. For example, fried artichokes are popular Easter fare, as is octopus salad and grilled asparagus with balsamic butter.

    In many Italian households, soup is served at the beginning of the Easter meal. Stracciatella -- Italian egg drop soup -- is often served on Easter and is sometimes complemented with fresh spinach. In Naples, Minestra di Pasqua is a traditional Easter soup made with kale, herbs, beef, pork and veal.

The Main Course

  • Lamb is the traditional meat served by Italians at Easter, and a leg or rack of lamb is often prepared by simply roasting it with rosemary, red wine and garlic. But how it's prepared depends on the region. Many southern Italians adhere to the roasted method, while in other southern regions, Pasqua is highlighted by lamb stew that includes fresh peas and asparagus. In Rome, the lamb is typically marinated with rosemary and lemon before it's roasted, while in Tuscany, it's often roasted with braised onions and carrots. Grilled lamb chops marinated in olive oil, white wine, sage and sometimes crushed juniper berries and peppercorns have become a national favorite at Easter.

    Goat is another Italian Easter meat, particularly in the region of Abruzzo, about 50 miles east of Rome. The main cuts -- the leg, loin, rack and shoulder -- are often roasted or grilled with the same spices as those used for lamb; less-tender cuts are usually braised or stewed.

Spring Sides

  • While lamb is the star of the Easter dinner, Italians complement the feast with a variety of side dishes that include succulent spring vegetables. This supporting cast often features dishes made with early peas, baby artichokes, asparagus, spinach or Swiss chard. Artichoke dishes are especially popular at Easter as artichokes are harvested during the spring in Italy. Some Italians opt for a simple saute of artichokes and potatoes, while others roast artichokes with olive oil, white wine, oregano and garlic. Early spring vegetables often are also combined with such fare as eggs and cured meats to make a savory torte. Torta Pasqualina -- a "pie" made of puff pastry stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach or Swiss chard -- is a popular Easter side dish in the coastal region of Genoa, on the Ligurian Sea.

    Pasta is a staple all over Italy, and on Easter, many of those dishes -- whether it be lasagne, gnocchi, linguini, ravioli or tortellini -- incorporate the early spring vegetables into the filling or sauce. In some households, risotto takes the place of pasta. Easter risotto is often made with seafood and fresh asparagus or baby peas.

Sweet and Savory Breads

  • Bread is a complement to every traditional Italian Easter dinner. The popular Pani di Pasqua is a sweet, egg-based Italian Easter bread that is braided into a round or rectangular loaf. Often, dyed hard-boiled eggs are baked directing into the bread or placed in the center. The names vary by the region, but this Italian Easter treat is served nationwide. Other types of bread served on Easter include the sweet, richly textured gubana bread -- made with nuts, raisins, apricot marmalade, cocoa, candied orange peel and wine, and the savory Neapolitan Casatiello which features black pepper and pecorino cheese.

Sweet Finishes

  • No Italian Easter feast is complete until the dolce -- dessert -- is served. One of the most traditional Italian Easter desserts is a sponge cake with ricotta cheese filling called Cassata Siciliana. Small tarts filled with custard and dove-shaped cakes with candied fruit and almonds are also popular Easter desserts in Italy. Ricotta cheesecake and the traditional tiramisu -- a dessert comprised of ladyfingers dipped in coffee and rum, separated by layers of espresso cream made with egg yolks and mascarpone cheese -- are always crowd pleasers.

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