It’s still Easter in Italy, in a manner of speaking. Yesterday, Sunday, was “Pasqua,” and today, Monday, is the holiday known as “Pasquetta,” or the mini-Easter, the day on which friends and family vie for the right to host rather than attend one another’s buffets of leftovers. So, while the spirit lingers, here are the ten ingredients for a real Tuscan Easter:
1. Reserve a lamb in advance with the nearest sheep-herding Sardinian farmer. When you go to pick it up, remind him that last year’s was tough and overpriced, in the hope that he’ll feel bad and give you some of that fresh ricotta he is sure to have made for the holidays. Put the lamb in the freezer.
2. Mid-way through Lent, start surveying the extended family on menu options, “Agnello arrosto (roasted lamb) o in umido (or stewed)?” in a thinly-disguised attempt to gauge attendance.
3. Start cooking for twenty on Good Friday: antipasti of crostini neri (bruschetta rondelles with liver pâté), to be followed by pasta al forno (lasagna), then boar stew, then roast chicken with potatoes and peas. Note: the Tuscans don’t like lamb; like goat, it’s something they believe is eaten “in the south” or “in the north,” so, seasonal as it is, you can safely leave it in the freezer.
4. Dessert will consist of the ubiquitous, store-bought Colomba, a panettone in the questionable shape of a dove, and of the uova di Pasqua, the big, hollow, foil-wrapped chocolate eggs with a surprise inside that children receive on Easter. FIGURE OUT EARLY WHICH EGG IS “IN” THIS YEAR AND BUY IT THE MOMENT YOU SPOT IT. (I saw desperate mothers threatening grocery-store shelf-stockers last week in the hope of procuring one more “Frozen”-themed milk chocolate egg.)
5. On Easter morning, send someone to mass (a son- or daughter-in-law will do), with a small, decorated basket containing a clean, pressed handkerchief covering a few hard-boiled eggs, an altar full of which the priest will bless at the end of the service. These are sliced and shared for blessings in the coming year at the beginning of the family meal.
6. Do not dress up for mass, and definitely don’t sing along. Glare, with the rest of the congregation, at the smiling, guitar-strumming, former organist as he leads the choir in the Italian equivalent of “Kumbaya.” By the way, it’s perfectly OK to stand at the back of the church and duck out for a cigarette now and then.
7. At lunch, paper plates are de rigeur. Those twelve-or-so china services kept in the never-used salone of the average Tuscan house or apartment are reserved for special occasions, i.e., not baptisms, weddings, funerals, birthdays, Christmas or Easter.
8. No special wines. The unlabeled bottles you fill yourself from the demi-john in the cellar are what everyone wants—wine light and low in alcohol, perfect to fill the umpteen glasses needed to wash down the gargantuan meal.
9. Whoever cooked, cleans up, while everyone else plays briscola (a card game with medieval origins and an infinite number of incomprehensible local conventions), which sounds like a raw deal, until a few octogenarian card sharks try to explain the rules of briscola in toothless dialect and the dishes start to seem like the easy way out.
10. Convened for 1pm, the meal will start at 2, finish at 4:30p and repeat the next day. But don’t worry, the Italians like to take a stroll after lunch (and cards), and never ones to skip a meal, dinner is bound to be light.