Easter for the family

When Angela Gismondi-Salbe was growing up, her father was the everyday cook.

But when it came to special occasions, her mother, Gabriella, and her aunts would step in and steal the show. Easter dinner would alternate year-to-year between family member's houses. But it always started after the last noon mass and finished hours and countless courses later.

They'd visit grandparents, neighboring relatives and her 30 or so cousins who'd inevitably be jacked up on Easter candy.

Her mother's parents mailed cheese calzones from Italy. For the children, the box contained Italian chocolate eggs, wrapped in sheets of colorful foil gathered with ribbon, and filled with toy surprises.

This Easter in Gismondi-Salbe's Boca Raton home, the savory pie known as Pizza rustica supplements the calzone appetizers. The first of several bottles of wine are opened. Their regional interpretation of pizza rustica hails from Lazio, Italy, in the family home province of Frosinone. The layer of boiled egg topping the meat and cheese filling symbolizes rebirth and new beginnings, as in the resurrection. For others, the egg is the symbol of the rock tomb where Christ emerged to the new life.

A homemade pasta course follows. It's typically lasagna or veal cannelloni with a bechamel sauce or a light brothy soup with pasta.

"Capon broth was the one dish my Dad would make in the morning," says Gismondi-Salbe. "He always liked to do it so that was his job."

The most significant Easter food is lamb, a reference to Jesus as "the lamb of God", representing innocence and sacrifice. Some years, the family would roast a whole lamb leg rubbed with garlic, olive oil and rosemary. But the all time family favorite, an Abruzzo specialty, is a braised lamb dish with a thickened lemony-egg sauce. It's not unusual for the lamb to reappear during the dessert course in the form of a lamb-shaped cake, often used as a centerpiece.

As a side dish, Gismondi-Salbe's mother, Gabriella, would serve Swiss chard or whole artichokes. But since Gismondi-Salbe launched Verdurabrand Vegetables in 2005, the peas and pancetta from her line successful line of frozen gourmet vegetables are served at easter.

"Italians like their peas cooked, almost overcooked, on the mushy side, with a sweet note from caramelizing the peas and onions," says Gismondi-Salbe.

To achieve this, she takes the packaged preparation one step further by sauteing the peas in olive oil after steaming.

Gismondi-Salbe lightens the traditional meal by opting out of salad and fruit and cheese courses, and heading straight for the dessert finale.

The Italian Easter dessert cakes tend to be more bread like, slightly sweetened and studded with dried fruits, a reference to Christ as "the bread of life." The recipes, shapes and names vary from one region to the next. Braided loaves often cradle whole decorated colored eggs. The traditional Colomba Pasqua or Easter Dove, is baked in the shape of a dove, a sign of the Holy Spirit and symbol of spring, peace and the resurrection.

Gismonde-Salbe prefers her family's version, Torta dolce di Pasqua also known as Pigna. Just as Giulia and Gabriella did, Angela teaches her girls to make the dense cake topped with meringue and decorated with a rainbow of spinkles. Espresso and Sambuca are poured with dessert.

And now all the women gather over a slice of cake and debate the proper texture and flavor.

Fortunately for Gismondi-Salbe, she has her mother's knack for making it perfectly.

claire@claireperez.com