A 23-pound chocolate egg is nearly blocking an aisle at an Orange Street market — and no one plans to move it until Monday.
That market is Romeo & Cesare’s at the corner of Willow Street in East Rock, one of several markets that have been transformed by the demands and culinary peculiarities that come with Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
In advance of the holiday, market owner Francesca Simeone gave a whirlwind tour of the market, tapping her fingers on pastry boxes, arranging ham pies, inspecting artichokes and overseeing cheese plate preparation before settling in for an expected Easter rush.
It’s part of Simeone’s quest to keep Easter traditions alive as New Haven’s Italian population evolves. Simeone’s father Romeo is from Formicola, Italy. Her family’s culinary traditions, which are intertwined with the market’s, are majority southern Italian. Simeone recalled growing up in East Haven with Easter Sundays packed with antipasti, salty and tomato-pink dried sausage, homemade ravioli, eggy ham pies and a cooked baby goat, specific to her father’s familial region of Italy.
That doesn’t even include dessert, she said: braided sweet breads, rice and wheat pies with grain and fresh ricotta cheese, and nut-studded chocolate. Those dinners went on for hours and drew friends and family members from around the state, she said — including Jewish friends from their New Haven beach club who would return the favor by inviting her to Passover seders the same month.
Now Simeone is working to sate Italian customers who still hold their traditions dear, and the few New Haveners who might wander in with a sense for culinary adventure. The market doesn’t do a lot of goat sales before Easter — most Italian families stick with lamb, and others often opt for ham (“but that’s really an American thing,” she said). On other fronts, though, she’s watched whole sections of the market transform into the panetterias and macellerias of small-town Italy. Fat, flour-dusted sausages hang from one aisle. Boxes of artichokes waiting to be stuffed with breadcrumbs and cheese, or steamed and brushed with butter, beckon from the front of the market. So do bright, bitter bunches of dandelion greens, used in traditional soup broths. Fresh homemade pasta await in the freezer section. And those are just for the beginning of the meal.
In preparation for holy week, the market puts in orders to Lupi-Marchigiano Bakery in the Hill neighborhood. Tens of sweet, braided bread wreaths studded with hardboiled eggs and bright sprinkles pour into the market, snatched up almost as soon as they arrive. On site, the market’s small kitchen staff snaps into action with cartons of eggs and tender slices of ham, churning out one pizza rustica or Easter pie after another. Then on the eve of Good Friday, it turns its cooking attention to the end of the meal: rice, ricotta, and wheat pies.
Then there is the market’s pièce de résistance, a 23-pound milk chocolate egg imported from Italy and raffled off to customers in the weeks leading up to the holiday. (For more modest chocolate consumers, smaller chocolate eggs hang from the ceiling by the sausage.)
It’s the largest size that the Italian vendor is willing to ship, Simeone said.
She added that she can’t remember how long the market has been doing the raffle — but that it’s another way of bringing the holiday spirit to East Rock. A holiday spirit that she says is still pretty hard core for many Italian families in the neighborhood and greater New Haven area.
“People forget that this is a very, very religious holiday,” she said.
While Easter, celebrating Jesus Christ’s resurrection after his crucifixion and burial, remains deeply religious for Christians like Simeone, its roots are secular. Those observing the holiday may not like to talk about it, said Language Chef Robert Aiudi — but Easter was Ēastre before it had anything to do with Jesus. Derived from Old English, Ēostre was a goddess of the dawn, tied to morning dew, pink sunrises, and new baby animals. A celebration of spring called Ēostre mundum or Easter Month took place each year; the term began to “stick” in English and German at the same time. As the sun rose earlier and stayed in the sky later, its direction of origin was named after her. Ultimately, Christians adopted the term from pagan culture, and a different tradition and religious architecture followed.
“This is a phenomenon that happens with language overall,” Aiudi said in an interview for WNHH’ “Kitchen Sync” program. “One person, whether they’re in 1215, or 1480, or 2017, you think that your language begins and ends with your existence, and it of course doesn’t.”
That’s why there’s so much resonance with spring, and with Passover, he added. In romance languages, the words for Easter and Passover are almost identical, some cultures pluralizing the word for one holiday and not for the other.
That extends to the table. Eggs, the pinnacle of rebirth, crop up throughout the meal (and in egg hunts) to remind their consumers of the fertility, abundance and fecundity that again abound around them. Lambs, slaughtered just as they have learned to stand on their wobbly legs, are celebrated and then devoured as part of a new farming season. Even the Easter bunny, who first came onto the American scene in the 19th century, has a tie to fertility. Before there were pregnancy tests, folklore suggested that one could inject a rabbit with the urine of a questionably pregnant woman. If the rabbit died, the woman was pregnant. If the rabbit lived, no dice. While that lore has since been disproven, the label has stuck, and Aiudi said he thinks of it as part of Easter’s overarching focus on new life.
To hear more about culinary traditions around Easter, click on or download the audio above, or check out WNHH’s “Kitchen Sync” podcast on iTunes.