Postcard from Sicilia: Easter in the shadow of Mount Etna
Pasqua. La Pasquetta. Easter. Little Easter. I was thrilled to be able to spend Easter holiday in Sicilia a few years back. I was dating Daniele, who lived near Taormina, at the time and was visiting for the holiday. What a truly amazing holiday Easter becomes through the eyes of the Italians. On Good Friday, I watched in amazement from the balcony of his house as the local congregration paraded down the street at 10PM with the statues of Mary and Joseph held high followed by the congregation all with candles aglow. Big, small, old, young – the procession stretched for blocks and I watched quietly from the balcony, wanting desparately to snap a photo, but wanting more to respect the honor of this ancient ritual.
The following day, Daniele, wanted to drive to the mountain village of Cesaro’ to visit dear friends of his - Vito and Angela. I always loved the drive to Cesaro’ from Taormina as it took us through the mountain villages in the shadow of Mount Etna. Fields of black lava wrap the hillsides and occasionally, in the evening, the lava flow from Etna would be streaming a bright red as we drove back to Taormina. This warm, gregarious couple talks to me simultaneously in rapid fire Italian and I would always find myself leaving them with a smile on my face and cheeks hurting from an evening of laughter. This was no exception. First however, we needed to find Vito and Angela who had instructed us that we would find them in the piazza outside their church in the village. We arrived to find the place deserted. After waiting for 10 minutes or so, Daniele suggested we go in the church to see if anyone was around. As we cracked the ancient wooden door, the voices of hundreds of villagers singing filtered into the piazza. We had found not only Vito and Angela but the entire village. We quietly took a spot in a pew and joined in with the villagers for the remainder of the service. Mass was followed by antipasti, limoncello and vino – all homemade of course- back at Vito’s house – but only after a stop to visit Vito’s 97 year old mother who was as spry as a 70 year old. We headed for home around 1AM with a wheel of fresh pecorino cheese and homemade salami. I loved the return trip as we always stopped at a local bakery on the way back that was up early (or late?) making their breads for the next morning. With Daniele in the car, I popped in the back door near the bread ovens, bought 2 loaves, still warm, now wrapped snugly in brown paper and we drove back to Taormina, happily munching the delicious bread all the way.
On Easter morning, there was a knock on the door. Daniele headed downstairs to greet the visitor – who was in fact delivering a fresh young lamb to his brother downstairs for Easter dinner. (Thankfully, Daniele quickly handed off the lamb.) Along with the lamb came more warm fresh bread and alongside it – still warm, fresh ricotta. What a treat! We sat in the kitchen, drinking espresso, and slathering fresh warm ricotta on the bread. Just heavenly.
The Italians celebrate something called ‘Easter Monday’ or ‘La Pasquetta’ – little Easter. A tradition that I wish we observed in America! Daniele had mentioned that on Monday we would be going with a group of friends into the hills for a picnic. Sounded fun but boy, was I in for a surprise!! The entire island of Sicilia heads into the hills for a picnic on Easter Monday – what a great concept! They pack their cars, campers, Apes with chairs, tables, food, wine and off they go. There were cars parked EVERYWHERE along the sides of the roads up in the hills. Picnic tables were everywhere; grills were loaded down with mounds of artichokes, coils of sausages and lamb. The air was filled with the smoky delicious scent wafting from so many grills. Stands selling cheeses, meats, fruits had popped up overnight and now litered the countryside.
The Italians either picnic or go to a mountain trattoria. We were bound for a trattoria -Trattoria da Brasarella- with friends. We drove for hours through the countryside, with Mt. Etna always in view. The hills, now just beginning to come alive with spring color, were dotted with poppies and mountain wildflowers growing in the crisp air.
We finally arrived at our mountain oasis and ate for hours, with table after table of other folks. There was no menu – just course after course, plate after plate served family style. Antipasti, pastas with fresh ricotta or ragu, heaping plates of grilled meats – lamb, sausages, grilled vegetables to perfection, and then desserts – simple plates of Easter cookies and breads – of course all washed down with vino and espresso. After hours at the table, we rolled back out to the cars and took a long, slow drive back home.
I am seriously considering starting a movement to adopt this tradition back home. What a wonderful way to spend a day with friends after the hectic Sunday Easter dinner! We could then all enjoy Easter, Italian style. Buona Pasqua….