Easter dinner in the Italian American kitchen may be the perfect example of a convergence of Italian tradition and American accommodation. For the pure bloods, most of whom still lived in South or West Philadelphia, food and tradition had no compromise. For those Italian Americans who had made the move to the suburbs or who had married non-Italian spouses some of the old traditions began to fade.These sons and daughters of Italy became " 'Merigan." (Meh- ree - ghan) - American. .One meal that could distinguish the old group from new was Easter.
For some Italian American families, if not most, lamb was and is the center of Easter dinner.Other Italian families, submitted to Americanization and for them ham became the main course.Still, in some families, like mine, ham and lamb shared the Easter oven. In addition to the lamb, or the ham, the other Easter essentials were the Easter bread and the Easter ricotta pies. These days I wonder how many families still make the pies and the bread. How many families have forgotten the lamb in favor of commercially prepared boneless spiral cut hams where even the pineapple and cherries have been forsaken in favor or ease and speed?
Before I continue with the Easter dinner of today’s generation, let me recall the past. When I was a child much of our food shopping for holidays was either on 9th Street in South Philadelphia or at Reali’s in the Overbrook section of West Philadelphia. In those days 9th Street was alive with the sounds and smells of bleating lambs and cackling hens. The chickens paced in gray wood crates speckled with droppings and feathers. The lambs stood numbly awaiting their slaughter in the back of the butchers’ stalls. Peddlers’ carts with large wooden wheels lined the street. At Easter, they also sold baby chicks for children to take home as pets. We would take home a number of them and house them in a basement wooden box fitted with a lamp that my father put together. Most of the chicks died. Those few that survived my father gave to a farmer.
Saint Donato's (closed)
When we couldn't make it to 9th Street the closest Italian market was Reali’s in the Overbrook section of West Philadelphia. Reali’s was our source for ricotta. In those days the cheese came in perforated tin containers that was covered in a sheet of plastic and secured by a rubber band. When the cheese was turned to its purpose, we used the tin containers to make kitchen string connected telephones. They never worked very well, perhaps because the tins were riddled with holes. Reali’s is long gone. So is the Italian community of Overbrook. It seems that even their church will soon be closed.
Reali’s ricotta was destined for two preparations, Easter lasagna and to the essential Easter pies.Easter pies came in two varieties. There were the sweat dessert pies of ricotta, either just cheese or ricotta with rice. These were for dessert. Then there were the savory pies, also made with ricotta but that included either spinach or ham and eggs. While the dessert pies were usually reserved for Easter dinner dessert, the savory pies made their way to the table on Easter Saturday as soon as the noon day whistle blew signaling the end of Lent’s fast and abstinence. In addition to the richly dense pies there was the equally wonderful Easter bread.
Easter bread came in countless shapes and sizes but what made Easter bread so visually spectacular were the beautifully died eggs. My Aunt Annie made breads that I still see clearly: bread in wreaths with colored eggs inserted into the braids, breads interwoven like a basket that held pastel eggs, breads like a bird sitting on a nest filled with real Easter died eggs.
As with Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Easter dinner was also distinguished by the table setting. This was a day when the table was set with a fine linen cloth, the good china, the good silver and the crystal glasses. In addition to birthdays, the holidays were the only days when the “good stuff” made an appearance on the table. For Easter there was also another curious element, the “butter lamb.” Along with the tins of ricotta for the Easter pies my father would bring home from West Philadelphia to our suburban home was a carefully packed little package. In the package was a block of butter in the shape of a reclining lamb. The little lamb held a little cellophane red pennant: the Jesus lamb. Who was the first to lop off the head of this little lamb to butter their Easter bread? I don’t remember.
In my family dinner all holiday dinners, including Easter began with fruit cocktail. Fruit cocktail is clearly not Italian, but in the 1950’s it was a fine point in any good Philadelphia restaurant. My guess is that we had fruit cocktail in an attempt at not only being American but at being restaurant sophisticated. The foundation of the fruit cocktail was nothing more than canned Del Monte, just as you would find in a restaurant. The Italian influence was to enrich the canned fruits with slices of fresh orange, grapefruit, banana and whatever other fresh fruits were available. The fruit cocktail was then served in high stemmed glasses just as you would find at Walber’s on the Delaware or at Bookbionder’s.
After the fruit cocktail came the antipasto The antipasto was an amalgam of fresh sliced meats and prepared, cured vegetables.Today an antipasto is grounded on leafy greens such as Boston bib or other red and green leaves but in the past, such greens did not exist, The antipasto appeared on a very large platter.The giardiniera rested in a wreath of golden orange slices dotted with canned olives and crowned with circles of brilliant orange slices. My children loved to mount the olives on their finger tips and then bit them off one by one. In those days, canned olives were the most common and convenient. Real brined olives were available on 9th Street and in West Philadelphia but they were strong in taste. Black canned olives had a pleasant texture but demanded nothing of your taste: very " 'Merigan."
Lasagna was the next course.Lasagna was the pasta of holidays. I would also note that in those days no one ever heard or used the word “pasta.” On Sundays we had “macaroni.” In summer we had “spaghetti” with clams or mussels. On certain occasions we had “gnocchi” or “cavatelli” (gavadeels). For holidays it was always “lasagna.” But we never had “pasta.” The only two dishes that I recall that included the word “pasta” were “past’ e fagioli” (pasta fazool) and “past’ e cecci’ (pasta cheech).
After the first two courses there was a slight pause.The women disappeared into the kitchen. The men and children stayed at the table. The pause was a time for stories and anecdotes and what you had just seen on television.In my house, the great topic was always what had just been on “Alcoa Presents” or the most intriguing episode of “The Twilight Zone.” After our highly philosophical discussions on the nature of precognition and the mysteries of the universe, our mother and aunts presented the main course. Back in the days of my childhood, the main course for Easter was not the traditional Italian lamb but the American ham.
When the ham came to the table it was a dazzling beauty. I can still myself watching its preparation in the kitchen. I can clearly see my aunt scoring the meat with a sharp knife to create a wonderful intersecting crisscross of lines on the ham’s outer fatty skin. Rings of canned pineapple were then fixed to the ham with slender tooth picks. In the middle of each pineapple ring another toothpick fastened a brilliant red maraschino cherry from a jar. A blend of the canned pineapple juice, ginger ale and brown sugar coated the ham. In those days the ham was a meat that was still akin to the animal. The ham had a center bone that caused slices to be broken. Today, there is the spiral cut ham, a manufactured element that removes all personal involvement with the meat and its source.
After the main course of ham there was a retreat. The men went to the living room for a little rest, or as Uncle George used to say, “I just want to rest my eyes.” We children collected in the center hall where we staged any number of improvised performances.The players on the hall floor, the audience mounted on the staircase. The women vanished into the confines of our small kitchen where they washed all the dinner dishes and set them away.
Dessert followed dinner only after that rather lengthy pause of eye resting and juvenile theatrics. Everyone reassembled at a freshly set table. Coffee was poured and the ricotta pies moved from the window sill to the table. There were four types of pie, the plain sweet ricotta, the sweet ricotta with rice, the ricotta with spinach and the ricotta with ham and eggs. The pies, of course, were already cut with good portions missing. They had been assaulted the day before when with the blowing of the noon whistle, Lent came to an end and feasting on meats and sweets returned.
Ham vs. Lamb
In my family we had both lamb and ham for Easter. When I asked my Irish descent mother why, she noted that my father, who was, as she said, "a very roast beef American" although of Italian heritage did not care for lamb. It seems that when my grandmother passed ham came to the table as a companion to the lamb. Eventually, the lamb disappeared completely. Back in the late 1960’s I was the first in my family to return to Italy. That first trip took place over the Easter holidays. What did they serve us for Easter Sunday dinner but lamb.That next year I suggested that in keeping with Italian tradition we should have lamb for our Easter dinner.The request did not meet the approval of all. Lamb’s strong savory Italian taste did not match the sugar coated salty ham so dear to my Americanized family. But since I was the indulged eldest son and since I had been to Italy, the kitchen conceded to my wishes. So returned the tradition of serving lamb and ham. Even now, to see my own children, they will take a small piece of the lamb, but their plate is primarily the sugar and salt ham dinner.
In my current studies of the Italian American kitchen and with access to so much online information I thought to give my attention to a good recipe for an Easter lamb. When I researched Google Italy, I found numerous recipes but none that suggested a distinctive method. Turning to my kitchen library I found several promising recipes. I considered Jeremiah Tower and Fearnley –Whittingstall’s The River Cottage – Meat. Of course I also consulted Carol Field’s Celebrating Italy. I even paged through Neelam Batra’s eye opening 1001 Indian Recipes. All of their versions for lamb are excellent. I have tried them on other occasions. But they didn’t seem quite right for Easter. Book by book, pages by page I continued the quest for a good Easter Lamb.
Above illustrations from Amazon.com
Roast Lamb Recipe
At length I made something of a roundabout when I opened the pages of Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. While I made a few modifications, the recipe is simple and fundamental.
Roast Leg of Lamb for Easter
What you need
What you need
Enameled Dutch skillet or iron skillet