Easter in Rome

By David Downie

Published on April 6, 2007

Easter week has always been my favorite time of year to visit Rome. Shops are done up like Faberge eggs, with ribbons and bows framing the windows. The streets, redolent of honey-sweet flowers and roasting lamb, have a festive, pagan air, and spring induces a sort of collective ecstasy in the city's many restaurants. With the suddenness of an April storm, trattoria tables dressed with orange tablecloths sweep out onto sidewalks and squares. The season's first outdoor diners tuck into pyramids of fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies, mounds of fresh fava beans to be popped from their skins and eaten raw, butter-soft artichokes marinated in olive oil, and, most of all, platters of abbacchio, the suckling lamb that defines the Roman springtime table. Cool Frascati wine, meanwhile, flows like the Fontana di Trevi, and all is well in the Eternal City.

Whenever I arrive in Rome at Eastertime, the first thing I do is amble up the Spanish Steps, through the crowds of tourists and masses of blooming pink and white azaleas, to take in the picture-postcard view from the church of Trinita dei Monti. As I look down, some benign god or goddess of spring is always busily greening a thousand terraces nestled among the weathered, russet-hued palazzi, alternating kitchen herbs with geraniums. Beyond the obelisks and towers, the columns and campaniles, the dome of Saint Peter's rises in the distance, above a square that I know is thronged with paschal pilgrims. Just uphill is the Pincio, the monument-filled hilltop park above the church; beyond that are the gardens of the Villa Borghese—a sea of daisies and fragrant mint, splashed with the purple blooms of Judas trees. Even the cypresses, so dusty and drab in summer, seem full of new life.

As Easter— Pasqua in Italian—approaches, the tired old Eternal City of textbooks and tourist brochures, built on the ruins of ruins and filled with the ghosts of other ages, suddenly becomes young, fresh, virginal. It is one of Rome's paradoxes that Easter, the definitive Christian feast, somehow captures the essence of this ancient capital, renewing it with timeless rites of spring.

It is precisely this essential Roman continuity that I find so comforting—particularly when it comes to food. My mother is Roman, and I spent several years of my childhood in the city—and have gone back frequently ever since. At Easter, I long for all the hearty, flavorful Roman dishes that my mother and her ancestors have seemingly always prepared, not from family recipes but with the typically Italian precept of quanto basta —q.b. for short. This simply means "as much as needed." As much mint, rosemary, and garlic as it takes to perfume everything from artichokes to roast lamb. As much ricotta, prosciutto, olive oil, and black pepper as pasta sauces require, and as many fava beans and zucchini and peas as you need to do it right—whatever the dish may be. More than that, q.b. also means improvisation within an age-old framework. It is more than an approach to cooking: It is a philosophy, a way of life.

This is as true in Rome's restaurants, long an essential part of the city's social life, as it is at home. When I visit Silvana Cestier, owner of Da Lucia, one of the most traditional trattorias in the atmospheric quarter of Trastevere, she tells me that she "eyeballs" everything. "I cook everything ad occhio," she grumbles in her rough romanaccio accent. "I follow my mother's traditions. That's how I learned. I've been here since 1938, when I was 11 years old. Recipes? What recipes? I don't invent dishes. This place was born serving food like this and is going to die serving it. It's that simple."

Indeed, simple is the word. Simplicity is the essence of Roman cooking. Simple ingredients: vegetables, olive oil, pasta, eggs, poultry, and meat. Simple techniques: baking, boiling, roasting, and frying. (An old Roman saying maintains that "If you fry a stick, even that'll be delicious.") The food historian June di Schino calls it "maximalist cooking—making a lot out of very little."

The roots of Rome's cuisine extend into the surrounding countryside—into the farms and pastures of the Lazio region, and into its peasant culture. Throughout Lazio, in fact, from Viterbo in the north to Frosinone in the south, the food remains pretty much the same, and pretty much like that of Rome itself. There are those who claim that cucina romanesca—the traditional cooking of Rome as it has developed over the last 200 years or so—is derived from the cooking of the Etruscan shepherds who lived in the region nearly 3,000 years ago. Hence it is probably older than imperial Rome's extravagant repertoire of caviar-filled pastries and roasted flamingos (happily swept away by the barbarian invasions). The so-called creative cuisine of some local chefs today seems to hark back to those days of Roman decadence, with little reference to rural culture or the city's own urban culinary traditions, and perhaps for that reason holds little appeal for most modern-day Romans.

To my mind, the eternal spirit of the Roman spring and the foods that come with it are nowhere more vividly displayed than on the Campo de' Fiori, the Field of Flowers—Rome's oldest and most beautifully named market square. This is a humble piazza, with no church gracing it—unusual in Rome; but while a church might cater to the spiritual needs of some, the Campo sees to the no-less vital rituals of buying, preparing, and eating food.

When I was a boy, my mother often shopped at the Campo de' Fiori, and she invariably bought everything there for our Easter week meals: mild corallina salame, to be served before lunch with decorated boiled eggs and breadlike pizza pasquale; a panoply of artichokes, zucchini, and other spring vegetables; strawberries from Nemi in the Alban Hills, when she could find them; and a whole suckling lamb. Dessert? A chocolate egg, perhaps, or the honey bread called mostacciolo—a traditional confection of ancient origins, originally shaped like a doll with three breasts (two for milk and one for wine, it was said), but now likely to be in the form of anything from a train to an elephant.

When I return today, familiar faces still animate the Campo's shops and outdoor stalls. On the square's southwest side, butcher Luciano Trabucchi, known as Il Fiorentino (the Florentine), is besieged, as was his father before him, by Romans in search of the finest suckling lamb. Lamb is the centerpiece of most Eastertime meals in Rome, in one form or another. Stuff or spike it with the ubiquitous rosemary and garlic and roast it with potatoes, and it becomes the centerpiece abbacchio al forno con patate essential for Easter lunch or dinner. Braise it in broth, with white wine and scrambled egg yolks, and it's an Easter Monday specialty called abbacchio brodettato. Cleave it into dainty chops, sprinkle them with rosemary and grill them for abbacchio scottadito ("burn-finger")—so named because the chops, hot off the fire, burn your fingertips when you pick them up to eat them. Saute the lamb's various organs with tender artichokes, and you get coratella con carciofi, to be eaten on Easter Sunday morning around 10:00 a.m. (if you've fasted on Saturday like a good Catholic) or at lunchtime (if, like most Romans these days, you haven't). Tie its tiny intestines, still full of milk, into loops, and saute them slowly with tomatoes, and you have pajata d'abbacchio, served either with rigatoni or alone as a simple second course. Dip its brains in a simple batter and deep-fry them (again, with artichokes), and you get cervelli fritti. Whole oven-roasted lamb's head, split open and sprinkled with salt, pepper, and rosemary, becomes testarelle d'abbacchio. In Rome, everything is used; the paschal lamb does not die in vain.

When I shut my eyes, I can hear my mother discoursing in Roman dialect with old Maria, alias La Cicoriara (the Chicory Lady), whose greengrocer's stall is on the Campo's north side. Maria has lost most of her teeth since I first saw her, but she's still selling delicious misticanza salad. The salad's composition is determined by the farmer, who sows a variety of seeds together and harvests the tiny plants together. Maria's version is likely to include as many as 20 greens and herbs, with a catalogue of oft-untranslatable names including bucalossi, caccialepri, cariota, cicorietta, erba noce, grespigno, indiviola, lattughella, ojosa, piede-di-papavero, porcacchia, radicette, raponzoli, and riccetta.

Almost every imaginable vegetable has its romanesco version, Maria proudly tells me—the result of centuries of expert farming. "And they're the best of their kind," she insists. This is especially true of the round, blunt-leaved Roman artichokes. Maria brandishes a plump carciofo romanesco cimarolo and explains that it comes from the cima , or top, of the bush and is thus "the plant's firstborn." Cimaroli are sold by the piece, not the bunch, and cost much more than braccioli (those grown on lower branches), which are "never quite as good." Artichokes are used in scores of ways. If they're not marinated in olive oil alla romana, for instance, they might be splayed and deep-fried alla giudia (Jewish-style, a reference to Rome's ancient ghetto, with its own highly developed and greatly appreciated variations on Roman cuisine), or combined with fava beans—like artichokes, at their best around Eastertime—and with spring peas and a few new potatoes, then sauteed in olive oil to produce the exquisitely simple vignarola, so satisfying that it's often served as a main dish.

But it's the Roman zucchini, the kind that look like fluted columns chiseled by Michelangelo, that really catch the eye at the Campo de' Fiori in spring. These are the famous zucchine romanesche. "They're tastier than the 'normal' ones," Maria tells me now, plucking delicate blossoms with fingers as gnarled as gingerroots. "The zucchine romanesche have the best flowers for stuffing and frying, too." Of course they do.

The Campo de' Fiori is Rome's most picturesque marketplace, but the Testaccio market, on the southeastern edge of old Rome, in a blue-collar district currently being gentrified, is equally popular with serious cooks. Testaccio gets its name from testa , the Latin word for pottery shard, by virtue of the mountain of broken amphorae systematically piled there for many centuries. It gets its character, however, from the fact that for hundreds of years it was the site of some of the city's best orchards and kitchen gardens, and its most important slaughterhouse.

The slaughterhouse is now in the suburbs, and the orchards and gardens have long since been subsumed by urban sprawl, but Testaccio is still full of market stalls and food shops. It is also the hub around which a handful of restaurants and trattorias of a quintessentially Roman kind are grouped—establishments like Checchino dal 1887, Perilli, and Lo Scopettaro. Such places are the birthplace of Rome's gutsy quinto quarto cooking, based on such organ meats and "variety" items as hooves, heads, brains, sweetbreads, even testicles. Quinto quarto literally means "fifth fourth"; these animal parts are said to account for about a quarter of a slaughtered beast's total weight, and they're the "fifth" quarter because they're in addition to the standard four quarters of a butchered carcass.

Ninetta Ceccacci Mariani, owner of Checchino dal 1887, tells me that in the days before refrigeration, organ meats were difficult to keep fresh, and slaughterhouse workers received the quinto quarto as part of their pay. This gave rise to scores of popular recipes, most of them based on beef or veal—specialties of the Testaccio slaughterhouse. Oxtail stew (called coda alla vaccinara) and tripe are perhaps the most famous. Though quinto quarto dishes are available year-round at Testaccio restaurants, Easter is the best time to eat them, because then suckling lamb and kid dishes are added. Ceccacci Mariani's abbacchio brodettato and abbacchio alla cacciatora, for example, are exquisite (and very Roman) in their flavorful simplicity.

For Romans, Easter feasting doesn't end on Easter Sunday. Easter Monday, called Pasquetta (little Easter), is a lighthearted day for country picnics—for una scampagnata fuori porta , an excursion beyond the old city gates. Everybody packs up Easter leftovers—salame, prosciutto, pizza pasquale, boiled eggs, cold roast lamb, and of course plenty of chilled Frascati wine. I'm always amazed by the skill with which these outdoor meals are prepared. The car is packed with folding table and chairs. While it is being brought around, the fettuccine is boiled, drained, dressed with classic Roman-style sauce, and returned to the still-hot pot—which is mummified in dish towels to insulate it. A dash to the car, and off you go!

Some denizens of the Eternal City, knowing that the traffic on the via Appia and other arteries will be horrendous on Easter Monday, stray no further than the lawns and shaded lanes of the Villa Borghese—but that hardly seems to count as fuori porta. Back in the 1960s, my own family sometimes went out to Ostia Antica, at the mouth of the Tiber southwest of Rome, for an Easter Monday picnic among the ruins—before Rome's suburbs had reached out and embraced them, of course.

The favorite Roman destination for Pasquetta excursions, however, has always been the volcanic, winegrowing Alban Hills, southeast of the capital, dotted with the historic towns of the Castelli Romani—among them Frascati, Grottaferrata, and Castel Gandolfo (site of the papal summer residence since the 17th century). And when I say "always," I mean always. Frascati was the holiday hangout of the Roman upper classes more than 2,000 years ago, before Pasquetta or Pasqua had even been invented. The picnic outside the walls is yet another of Rome's timeless springtime rituals.

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