Springtime holidays celebrate a renewal of life, reinvention, rebirth. Both Passover and Easter have Biblical stories behind them, though historically there's always been a spring solstice celebration of fertility and life. Personally, I grew up going to family Passover seders as a sort of obligation. But as an adult, I've grown to enjoy the holiday, and really came to appreciate it when I began hosting my own seders in Rome. I would invite friends over, both English speakers and Italians, and everyone would participate in the reading of the haggadah (the book that contains the story of Exodus and the prayers said before, during, and after the Passover meal). There were rarely other Jews present. For my friends, this was simply an interesting twist on one of my dinner parties.But it was a fun cultural experience for everyone, and friends got to explore and enjoy some traditional Passover foods, things they'd never tried before. Another plus? Everyone loved the idea of the requirement of consuming lots of wine throughout the meal. And there were so many passages to be read and prayers to be said before we actually got to eat the dinner that one of my friends, upon spreading the apple-nut mixture haroset on a piece of (tasteless) matzo, proclaimed, "This is the best thing I've ever eaten!" Yes, he was starving and half-drunk. But it was a happy moment nonetheless!
Easter, while not a holiday I generally celebrate, is a day of great importance in Italy. Still, I could always appreciate the trappings of Easter in Rome (to wit: people camping out alongside the Coliseum to witness the Pope's Stations of the Cross, and the accompanying sound checks, was more reminiscent of desperate fans scalping tickets to a rock concert than devout Catholics hoping to glimpse their religious leader). And I've certainly enjoyed my fair share of the Easter feasts with friends and loved ones.In Rome, it's a celebration of spring itself, La Primavera: lamb, artichokes, asparagus, eggs, cheesy parmigiano Easter bread, salumi and formaggi...the list goes on.There's a saying in Italy that states: Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi...which basically means Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever you want. I like that it's a more community-friendly holiday in Italy. People certainly turn out for church, but beyond that, the Easter meal can be with family, friends, or out in a restaurant. Eating well is the priority.
And the next day, Easter Monday, or "Pasquetta," is basically national picnic day. In Rome we'd head to the vast and beautiful park, Villa Pamphili, for vino and nibbles and sun and frisbee. It was always packed, but this was the perfect gathering spot for everyone in Rome to soak up some springtime sun and get out of doors without trekking to the beach just yet. And a picnic is a wonderful excuse to eat up leftovers, make delicious panini and frittate and drink crisp vino bianco in the afternoon...
This year, I catered clients' Passover seders, and today is barely warm enough in New York City to make a picnic tolerable. Lovely as Central Park is, it's no Villa Pamphili, there are no umbrella pines, and precious few people in the U.S. celebrate Pasquetta. I miss Rome in the springtime. But I brought a little bit of The Eternal City along this season in my Passover carciofi alla romana (Roman style braised artichokes) and sauteed greens "Jewish Ghetto style" with sultanas and pine nuts. Preparing them brought me back to my 17th century apartment in Largo Arenula, to my Passover seders in my large living room with the wood beam 15-foot-high ceilings, the noise of the city's cars and vespas passing beneath my windows.
It brought me back to preparing for Pasquetta picnics, chilling bottles of Falanghina, and packing up the coolers to hop on the tram outside my door, which took me across the river to Trastevere where I'd meet my friends. We'd head in a caravan to Villa Pamphili, to our spot, to our own "famiglia romana" in the park, eating and drinking wine, laughing, tossing the frisbee until our shadows grew long and we headed back out along the walled Via Aurelia Antica, through Monteverde Vecchio, down the hill into Trastevere, at dusk.
Buona Pasquetta a tutti.