Updated: Apr 24, 2019
Everyone knows the importance of Easter (Pasqua) in a country like Italy. Not as many people know the significance of Pasquetta, the day after Easter. It is one of my favorite days of the year, for it honors one of the traditions that we all love about Italy – devotion to family and friends.
Pasquetta is a national holiday, so it gives families the chance to be together for a relaxed day of eating, celebrating, eating, taking a family walk together (la passagiata), going to the seaside, and did I mention eating? If you rolled up the American holidays of Thanksgiving and the 4th of July into one holiday, now you have an idea of the exuberance that takes place on Easter Monday in Italy.
And no one does a better Pasquetta celebration than Nicola Padrino, my builder and one of the heroes of my book, Under the Tuscan Thumb – How “Building Dreams in Tuscany” Turned Into a Nightmare. I tell the story in my book about being invited to Nicola’s daughter’s wedding, and the feast that followed. Well, yesterday’s Pasquetta extravaganza at Nicola’s home wasn’t far behind.
It is a twelve-hour celebration with 25 adults gathered around the charcoal fire pit dug into the ground and the dozen or so little ones playing soccer in the back garden.
As always, we begin with the antipasti. The grill is covered with red and yellow peppers, zucchini, and fresh bread. A tub of chopped tomatoes waits at the side to make the bruschetta complete. Someone has made a frittata or two.
Then the first course is served: spaghetti with garlic, olive oil, pepperoncino (red pepper flakes) and parmesan cheese. Now that we’re warmed up, the real fun begins. An industrial-sized grate goes over the coals and 100 pieces of lamb are placed on the grill, having already been marinated with spices and olive oil. We all gather around the fire, keeping an eye on the pieces we want to claim as our own, turning them periodically. When they are just right, they are speared and taken away to our communal tables.
Then 50 spring onions appear, each carefully wrapped in pancetta, and are lined up over the fire.
Over the next several hours this pattern continues. Ribs….. more lamb……sausages……more spring onions, this time without the pancetta, just placed on the hot coals and then covered with more coals. Then 50 artichokes are brought out, and after having been seasoned and drenched in more olive oil, they are placed directly on the coals. Fifteen minutes later we are all peeling back the tender inner leaves and sighing with happiness.
Four hours after it has all begun, the desserts come out. The highlight is Marinella’s (Nicola’s wife) homemade cannoli, a specialty from their homeland in Sicily. Handmade shells stuffed with ricotta cheese that has been tossed with chocolate chips and then sprinkled with chopped pistachio nuts. I’m starting to swoon at this point and Debbie and I have never lasted until midnight, when the party ends.
All during the day, music is pounding away in the background and people jump up to dance as the mood strikes them.
As grand and bountiful as the food is, it is the sheer joy of this group that stands out to me. Throughout the day, Nicola is constantly picking up his grandchildren and spinning them around. They giggle and come back for more. A crying three-year old is quickly given a bit of torta from someone’s fork and they smile again. Teenage daughters happily dance with their mothers. The hugs from family and friends and the big smiles on the faces of these lovely Sicilians are what I remember most about the day. It was an honor to be there.