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North End remembers Easter picnic

From left: Mary Frasca, Maria Stella Gulla, and Marianna Marcella think fondly of the tradition of the Little Easter picnic in Italy. From left: Mary Frasca, Maria Stella Gulla, and Marianna Marcella think fondly of the tradition of the Little Easter picnic in Italy. (PHOTOS BY SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF)
By Krina Patel
Globe Correspondent / April 8, 2009

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We are sitting in Contrada's Coffee Shoppe in the North End talking about scampagnata, the Easter Monday picnic tradition in Italy. Gino Colafella, the barber from Johnny & Gino, the shop a few doors down, walks in. "I remember it well," he says.

Colafella, who has lived here for four decades, has warm recollections of Pasquetta (Little Easter) at home. So does Lia Tota, who was 10 when she emigrated with her family from the northern region of Piedmont in 1957. Tota, now director of Action for Boston Community Development's North End/West End Neighborhood Service Center, says, "Pasquetta is one of those wonderful memories." Her father would make many runs in his packed car ferrying people to the picnic spot outside Turin. She remembers her mother fixing lunch on tablecloths spread over the grass, the aroma of foods coming out of each family's baskets, and her father leaving a wine bottle to cool in the stream. The Easter Monday tradition is largely gone now because Monday is a workday for most people and younger Italian-Americans never experienced the joyous spring celebration.

Pasquetta fare called for creativity and families tried to outdo each other. Many dishes were improvised from the array left after the big Easter celebration. Colafella recalls the aroma of baking in the streets of his town all through Easter week. Some of these baked goods, even pasta dishes, might go into the picnic basket. A frittata, which is easily filled with leftovers, was often a must. Once outdoors, all guests had to do was put a slice of the eggy pie between bread to make a delicious sandwich. Families might cook at the site. "Cooking pasta on the beach - it's possible," says Anna Salamone, who also spent part of her childhood in Italy.

Maria Stella Gulla, who was born here but returned to live in Italy, is now working in the North End. She smiles as she recalls Easter picnics at home and the promise of romance. Games - cards, maybe even boccie or football - were played to the background music of operas and popular songs. Angelo Cattaneo, the owner of Caffe dello Sport on Hanover Street, springs lightly from one foot to the other. "Ah! The girls! The picnics were a time to look at beautiful girls. After all, we were only 18 or 19."

Boston's Italian-American community has maintained many old traditions, but not Easter Monday's scampagnata. Mary Frasca, a dynamic community member and lifelong North End resident, heard about the picnics from her parents. "A lot of traditions are going to be lost once our generation is gone."

Tota has an idea. "Maybe we will have a picnic for the seniors this Easter," she says. "We can even invite the students from the school to participate. That will be a nice way to revive the tradition."

"I miss Italy - always," says Cattaneo, "But what I miss most is those years of my youth."