Growing up in an Italian home, holiday celebrations were very important events. Everything we did was prescribed by the Old World traditions that my mother brought here from Amalfi.
I also lived in Wooster Square, a neighborhood where just about everyone shared those same traditions.
Easter, in particular, was steeped in the Catholic Lenten observances. We all fasted and abstained from meat throughout the period and my mother added some restrictions of her own, based on her upbringing. For instance, we abstained from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout Lent and on the week before Easter, Holy Week, we went without as well. My mother would find foods to cook that were tasty but meatless, and she dug into her repertoire of pasta and vegetable dishes in order to accomplish that.
We kept the fast until noon on Holy Saturday, when she would serve her traditional macaroni pizza, a baked casserole of macaroni, eggs, cheese and some cured meats. This was a very special event for us all, the first taste of the rich foods that were to come the next day at the Easter meal.
Palm Sunday was also celebrated as a special event. It was our custom to visit all our relatives, aunts, uncles, and god parents as well, to offer a palm frond. In the Italian tradition, this is considered a mark of respect and familial unity. We always wore our Easter finery a week early, and each home we visited offered sweet treats set out on the kitchen table. By the end of the day, my mother’s kitchen was filled with the evidence of those visits; a huge bouquet of palms arranged in a vase on the table.
On Holy Thursday, we visited three churches in the neighborhood to commemorate the Last Supper and celebrate the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Everything was solemn and focused on the liturgical events that were to come, and the neighborhood was alive with neighbors making a quiet pilgrimage from church to church.
In my family, certain foods were always present on the Easter table; a soup with dandelion greens, a harbinger of spring; a platter of cured meats such as prosciutto and salami with boiled eggs and basket cheese; pizza cheina, a quiche-like pie filled with meat, eggs, and cheese; lasagna; artichokes; and breaded fried asparagus, which was my mother’s family tradition.
Of course, all of this was followed by an array of desserts which always included the pastiera, a traditional Neapolitan pie made with wheat berries and ricotta, and usually cream and ricotta pies as well.
Holiday sweet and savory breads were baked in a ring shape with eggs embedded into the crust. We lived just down the street from the original Lucibello’s pastry shop, so the air was always filled with the wonderful aroma of pastry baking. In fact, there were five authentic Italian pastry bakeries in my neighborhood, so you had your choice of the best of the best. Each one madethe holiday specialties with a subtle difference based on their own family recipes, and each shop had their devoted followers.
All of these served to underscore how much our customs and traditions were meshed with our celebration of the holiday. Families gathered around the holiday table and waited to be blessed by the father with newly blessed holy water from the church. In our family we held a special goblet for just that purpose.
Angela and I, over the years, established our own customs that reflected our different experiences from our childhood. We respected the traditions but made it our own. But we always made pizza cheina and cream pie and some sweet bread, and the Easter table looked a lot like those of our childhood.
Now my friends in the Wooster Square Cooks group remind me that so much of that tradition still remains, as a link to the past and a gift to the future.