It’s almost Easter Time and I’m reminded of those early restaurant years when, of course, Lista’s Italian Cuisine would be open for business even on Easter Sunday. For my family, holidays were a mixed bag of religious obligations, pseudo-traditions, traveling to family gatherings, and keeping up with a thriving small business.
At Easter time Dad would inevitably be busy with the restaurant, while we kids would be coloring eggs with Mom; sneaking peeks at our Easter baskets, and looking forward to the big meal with extended family. For our Italian-American family, Easter may have held the closest thing to Italian holiday traditions. As Roman Catholics, church services were an important part of the Easter season (and since I went to Catholic school I attended Mass several times during Easter week). Symbolic foods like roast lamb, asparagus, artichokes, eggs, cheese, and traditional braided Easter breads were usually served. We would often gather with my Dad’s extended family including my Great Grandmother Carmela (Tanzola) Lista — we kids always called her Grandma Lista-Lista.
Carmela Tanzola at 14 years old, and betrothed to a much older Pasquale Lista, emigrated to America around 1905 — she was a beautiful Italian woman who came from a tiny place called Casalicchio (population 20) in the Campania Region of Italy. Although I never met my Great Grandfather, Grandma Lista-Lista was the anchor of this Italian-American family for many, many years.
In her later years, Grandma Lista-Lista lived with her daughter, my Great Aunt Delores, in Gates NY and we often spent time there on weekends, especially around the Holidays. My favorite thing about visiting Grandma Lista-Lista was her cooking! She had a kind of apartment in the ground floor of Aunt Delores’ house and she had her own kitchen which she used to cook all kinds of traditional Italian foods. I remember trying things like dandelion greens, fried burdock stems (carduni), giant “puffball” mushrooms, salt cod (bacalao), squid (calamari), octopus (polpi) and smelt — along with homemade pizza, pasta, and many types of traditional sweets and cookies. Grandma Lista-Lista’s biscotti (what we called anisette toast) were one of my favorites.
Around Easter and throughout Spring, cooking artichokes and asparagus was very common in Italian-American households. I recall one day while visiting Grandma Lista-Lista she made an interesting dish of artichokes, eggs, and peas. I thought it was delicious and for some reason it is one of the few dishes that brings back memories of childhood and those family visits.
Grandma Lista-Lista’s Artichokes, Eggs & Peas
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Serves: 2-4 servings
3 large Eggs
2 TBSP Olive Oil
1-2 cloves Garlic – pressed or minced
1 (14 oz) can Artichoke Hearts – roughly chopped
1 cup Frozen Green Peas – thawed
Salt & Pepper – to taste
Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese – for topping (optional)
1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over med-high heat. Add minced garlic and cook until fragrant (1-2 minutes), add chopped artichokes and peas – stir and cook until artichokes are falling apart and peas are getting tender (7-10 minutes).
2. In a small bowl scramble eggs with 2 tsp water, pour into artichokes and peas and quickly stir to coat and cook the eggs through (3-5 minutes). Season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. Serve with a generous sprinkling of grated Romano cheese if desire.
Another Easter memory is eating Spinach & Ricotta Pie.
In northern Italy Torta Pasqualina or Easter Pie is the highlight of the Easter lunch table. Traditionally made with a puff pastry double crust (33 layers representing the age of Jesus Christ), chard or spinach (representing the green of Spring), and whole hard cooked eggs (representing new life) which are nestled inside the herb and cheese filling.
My take on this dish is much simpler and quick to prepare. I choose to make it with one crust and mix the eggs into the cheese filling. It is similar to a dense quiche and very flavorful.
Dan’s Spinach & Ricotta Pie
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 45-60 minutes
Serves: 6-8 servings
1 prepared 9″ Pie Crust (regular or Gluten Free)
3 large Eggs – beaten
1 (16 oz) container Ricotta Cheese
1/2 cup Shredded Mozzarella Cheese
1/4 cup Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese
2 TBSP Fresh Basil Leaves – chopped
2 cloves Garlic – pressed or mince
1/2 tsp Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Salt – to taste
2 TBSP Grated Pecorino Romano for topping (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F with rack in the center position.
2. In a large bowl combine the beaten eggs, ricotta, mozzarella, Romano cheese, chopped basil, garlic, and black pepper until smooth.
3. Squeeze as much moisture as possible from the thawed spinach and fold into to the cheese mixture – season with salt to taste.
4. Pour spinach cheese mixture into the prepared pie crust and smooth out the top with a spatula. Sprinkle with additional Romano cheese it desired. Place pie on a rimmed baking tray (cookie sheet) and place in the center of the preheated oven.
5. Bake pie until crust is nicely browned and filling has puffed around the edges and firm in the center about 45-60 minutes (check after 30 minutes and then every 15 minutes until done). Remove from oven and cool slightly on wire rack before cutting.
6. Serve Spinach & Ricotta Pie warm or at room temperature. Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days.
There you have it, two Easter Time recipes for you to try… one old time favorite from my Great Grandma Lista-Lista — and one simplified take on an Italian Holiday tradition. Both dishes would make a nice addition to your Easter Brunch or Dinner. You can increase the Artichokes, Eggs, & Peas recipe to serve more people as needed. Spinach & Ricotta Pie can also stand alone with a nice green salad on the side.
Whether or not you try these recipes, I hope you and your family have a chance to spend some time together during this Easter Time.
Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”