Easter is one of Italy’s most important holidays – a riot of religious processions, village festivals, family get-togethers and seasonal produce. Capture its flavours with our four-course feast.
“Agnello al forno con patate – loads of garlic and rosemary, absolutely no sauce!”. That’s what wedding planner, Masterchef finalist and Italian cooking tutor, Sofia Gallo remembers most about her childhood Easters in Campania’s Cilento. “Nonna cooked it in huge quantities every year; together with Pastiera Napoletana, a festive speciality made from eggs, spices, ricotta and pearl-barley. We didn’t do chocolate eggs: this was all the gift we’d need,” she recalls.
“Easter is all about families coming together and eating.”
We were chatting about the traditions and rituals that turn Pasqua into such a joyous celebration throughout Italy. And she concludes: “It doesn’t matter where you are, in the North or the South, Easter is all about families coming together and eating from dusk till dawn”. I can relate.
Eat your heart out
A few years ago, I spent Easter in Verona – one of Italy’s most beautiful and ancient cities; full of renaissance splendour. But it’s the food that lingers longest in my memory. The highlight was an astonishing, five-course meal at the historic Ristorante Torcolo. Pure theatre.
The place was packed with large families spanning several generations. After the sacrifices of Lent, they were out for a splurge.
Prosecco to sip alongside giant platters of antipasti groaning with salumi, crostini and verdure sott’olio. Primo: a steaming bowl of fettuccine with five separate sauces, including mounds of white truffle.
Secondo: the main event – Il Gran Bollito Misto, perhaps the most sophisticated of all Northern Italian dishes. Tongue of veal, capon, beef brisket and cotechino swim gently in a delicate broth of clove-studded onion, carrot and celery. They’re complemented by the most exquisite salsa: roasted red peppers with tomato and onion, fiery-hot horseradish, parsley with mustard, anchovies and capers.
Still hungry? Six local formaggi, thick slices of pineapple, espresso, grappa and a devilish torta al cioccolato round things off. The Amarone flowed smoothly throughout….
With spring in full-swing, an Italian Easter showcases the best of its ingredients: lamb, kid, carciofi and piselli abound. In homage to my experience of Pasqua a Verona, I’ve raided my cookery books to compile a four-course feast that brings a touch of Torcolo to your table.
Antipasto: Giorgio Locatelli’s ‘Insalata di carciofi alla Parmigiana’
‘The combination of marinated and raw artichokes gives a fantastic contrast of flavour and texture in this salad’. Locatelli’s right: it’s divine, when these golden-green globes are young and fresh. He goes on to note: ‘Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can find really tiny artichokes, the size of a golf ball.’ They’re worth seeking out, because they contain no fibrous choke. You can eat them whole. Such a delicacy and a light, bright to start to your meal.
Artichoke salad with Parmesan from ‘Made in Italy Food & Stories’, Giorgio Locatelli with Sheila Keating – Fourth Estate London, 2006.
Primo: Marcella Hazan’s ‘Courgette sauce with basil and beaten egg yolk’
Eggs are an Easter classic, and here they form the basis of a subtle and refined pasta sauce. A dash of milk; a hint of basil; grated Parmesan and Romano cheese – they go a very long way. Says Hazan: ‘The clinging courgette strips and the creamy consistency of the sauce make it particularly suitable for curly shapes such as both kinds of fusilli, the short stubby ones and the long corkscrew strands’. Simply delicious.
Reproduced from ‘The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking’ by Marcella Hazan – Macmillan London Listed, 1992.
Secondo: Gennaro Contaldo’s ‘Agnelli con piselli freschi’
This seasonal stew by the insatiable, inimitable Gennaro is one of my Easter favourites, so I had to include it. His tip? Time: ‘The secret of success is leaving the lamb to cook on a very low heat; in this way the lamb and the rest of the ingredients will cook through well, and all the juices will ooze out to create a lovely sauce.’ White wine vinegar and red chilli add just enough zing to cut through the melting meat.
Lamb with fresh peas from ‘Two Greedy Italians’, Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo – Quadrille Publishing Ltd, 2013.
Dolce: The River Cafe’s ‘Easy small nemesis’
On the menu at Thames Wharf since 1989, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’ chocolate nemesis is an institution itself. They describe it as ‘the best chocolate cake ever’, and I’d be hard pushed to disagree. It’s an indulgent sugar-bomb of naughtiness that’s perfect with a dollop of creme fraîche. Take my advice: follow with strong coffee and good grappa…
Reproduced from ‘River Cafe Cookbook Easy’, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers – Bury Press, 2008.
However you celebrate your Easter, take a leaf out of celebrity chef, Antonio Carluccio’s book: “You have to have love and passion to cook — not just knowledge and skills. Cooking is an art of entertaining, of taking time to think about the people you like, and about how to make them happy.”
Cheers to that: buona Pasqua!