Elise Pasini with husband Stefano Marastoni and children Andrea, 10, and six-year-old Maria. Photo courtesy Elise Pasini

Family tradition brings taste of Italy to Easter

By 
  • April 3, 2021

Lamb stew might not be typical Easter cuisine in North America, but for Elisa Pasini and her family it is an Italian delicacy steeped in tradition.

Hailing from Faenza, a small city in northeast Italy in the province of Emilia-Romagna, the holiest Sunday of the year is all about spending time with family, attending Mass and eating plenty of  agnello in umido.

“Usually in all of Italy at Easter everyone is cooking lamb, especially the most traditional families,” said Pasini. “They still link it to the Jewish Paschal lamb (sacrificed at the Passover). It’s cooked in different ways across the country but where I’m from they do it (as) a stew prepared with tomato sauce and beans.”

Things have looked a little different for Pasini and her husband Stefano Marastoni — parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes in Toronto — since emigrating to Canada in 2013 with their eldest son Andrea, now 10 years old. There are no more big family gatherings for the couple who work as cancer researchers for the University Health Network in Toronto, an ocean away from their parents and extended family. In their downtown apartment they are raising their three children which now include two daughters, Maria age six, and Sophia born just a month ago.

These days they don’t always get around to cooking lamb at Easter. Beef is the usual substitute, less expensive and better suited to their children’s palettes. But Pasini’s mouth still waters at the thought of the traditionally prepared dish.

Pasini said an Easter in her homeland begins with a hardboiled egg that has been blessed by a priest and a bread made with flour, eggs and raisins. In the farming communities of Italy where she hails from, it’s common for people to raise chickens and eggs which at Easter are a symbol of life and resurrection, she says.

After Mass the day is spent in the home of the patriarchal grandfather in a large multigenerational gathering. Lunch starts with an appetizer of salami with more hardboiled eggs. The first main course would be lasagna followed by the lamb stew. It’s cooked with about a kilogram of lamb for every six people. Also added to the dish are onions, bacon, carrots, celery, white wine or tomato sauce. The mouth-watering recipe takes about an hour and a half to cook and is presented in a large serving bowl.

The last time Pasini and her family were in Italy was 2017. The holidays can make being away from their parents in Italy even more difficult. Not being able to get together with friends here in Canada who have become like family hasn’t made it any easier during the pandemic. They are grateful however, to have emigrated to Canada in pre-COVID days where they were able to connect with their church community at Our Lady of Lourdes, where they were immediately embraced which very quickly helped Canada feel like home even at Easter time.

“You see these huge families at church (in Toronto) in the same way that it was in Italy,” said Pasini. “(Easter) is kind of a family reunion. When we go there and we don’t have our grandparents here or my mom and dad, I miss them. At the same time when we go to church here and see a welcomer with a big smile or we hear a joke from Fr. John (Sullivan) during the homily, those things really warm my heart. It’s like we are home anyways.”

With churches open again at limited capacity, the family looks forward to enjoying their first Easter Mass this year as a family of five, followed by a somewhat traditional Italian meal at home.

“I’m happy because last year it was closed, this year is open and I see that as a kind of gift from God,” said Pasini. “I think if you pray and you keep hoping maybe not the year that you want, but maybe the year after, the grace comes.”

Pasini family Easter Agnello in umido

Ingredients for preparing stewed lamb (for 6 people):

  • 1 kg of lamb cut into pieces
  • 80 grams of minced bacon
  • Half onion and one carrot minced (similar to rice vegetables)
  • 200 grams of fresh fine peas ( or frozen, previously thawed)
  • ½ can of tomato sauce (or crushed tomatoes)
  • extra virgin olive oil (3 tbs)
  • fine salt black pepper    

How to prepare stewed lamb:

  • Start by browning the bacon well in the oil.
  • add the lamb cut into pieces and brown,
  • add two ladles of tomato sauce.
  • season with salt and pepper,
  • cover, cook over low heat.
  • cook for about an hour then add the peas, cook and if necessary, add a little water or vegetable broth, to prevent the sauce from drying out too much.
  • Serve the stewed lamb with peas hot.

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