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‘Go watch Nonna cook’

Italian Easter remains a ritual of many days, many foods, and many years of experience. A fading ritual, though, in busier times.

By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / April 20, 2011

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WALTHAM — Margherita DiDuca Drake would be the first to tell you that her Easter feast is not easy to prepare. “When you do everything from scratch, it takes a lot of time,’’ says Drake, who was born in Frosinone, southeast of Rome. “Everything is a lot of work.’’

She wouldn’t have it any other way.

The traditional Italian-American Easter meal is rich, festive, elaborate, and labor-intensive. The array of dishes might include a big antipasto, a meaty pizza rustica, homemade pasta, lamb accompanied by a multitude of vegetables, pastries beyond number. Now the next generation is struggling with the time and inclination it takes to learn those dishes. Still, it’s nothing like people did in years past — when all the women in every household where Italian was spoken were preparing for weeks before Easter, when daughters stood next to mothers and aunts and learned from an early age. At this holiday, as at many others, historical foodways are headed for the endangered list. But traditionalists cling to their customs. It’s their turn to pass them on to their children and grandchildren.

Granted, not everyone is sorry to see the old ways go. “It was too many courses, and it was too heavy, and you couldn’t move afterward,’’ says Vilma Ferri Sullivan, a Somerville grandmother, as she recalls the Easters of her youth. “Nobody today can eat like that — or if they do, they shouldn’t.’’ Even so, Sullivan still makes an Italian Easter bread with aniseed and citrus rinds to share with her neighbors.

Sullivan’s cousin, Julio Perno, also a Somerville resident, straddles two worlds on the holiday. “I make the homemade raviolis from scratch . . . and the traditional ham.’’ Ham? Doesn’t he mean lamb, the traditional centerpiece on Italian tables? Indeed, his family serves ham. “I guess that’s the Americanization,’’ he says. “We definitely prefer ham.’’

For some, ham suggests a dramatic departure from what the feast should be. Vita Orlando Sinopoli, 86, of Wilmington, enjoyed childhood Easters of homemade macaroni, stuffed artichokes, chicken soup with tiny acini de pepe pasta, pastries made or brought by aunts and cousins. Her two daughters like to cook, says Sinopoli. “That kind of Easter meal fades away, as the younger generation decides they would like ham.’’

Don’t suggest such a thing to Adriana Cillo of Roslindale. “I’d never trade lamb for ham,’’ she says, and neither would any of her eight siblings (four of whom live in Italy), or their families. Easter preparations for this extended clan spread over days, if not weeks, and everything is done at home, right down to the wine. Cillo is the youngest sibling, her sister Antonia Sellitto the oldest. Sellitto, who speaks little English and grows tomatoes, eggplant, celery, garlic, grapes, peaches, pears, roses, and more in her garden, is a particular repository of the old ways.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Cillo and Sellitto meet in Sellitto’s Roslindale kitchen to prepare taralli, a crunchy biscuit served after dinner with sweet wine. They make it especially for Easter. As the sisters sift flour, knead dough, and banter in Italian, Raffaella Thomas, the oldest of Sellitto’s six children, turns up at the kitchen door, watching as her mother bakes.

“I always say I’ll come and watch her and learn,’’ says Thomas, who was born in Italy and came here at age 10, in 1968. “It’s sad; I just don’t have time. My daughter says, ‘Ma, you’ve got to go watch Nonna cook.’ ’’ Thomas knows she’s right, but this kind of all-afternoon cooking session is difficult to fit into her busy life.

“Cooking is all she does,’’ says Cillo of her sister, and judging from the array of dishes that have emerged from her oven just within the past day or so, that can’t be far wrong. There are a couple of pizzas (the sauce from one of the 300 jars of tomatoes Sellitto canned last summer), taralli both iced and plain, a ricotta pie, Easter bread, and other pastries typical of their native Avellino. A visitor is urged to eat, drink a glass of wine, taste a fresh cheese. Sellitto stops only to show off her garden and family photos.

Most menus require special shopping trips, especially for those who have moved away from the urban enclaves of past generations. Cillo and Sellitto have it relatively easy: Their brother Tony DeBenedictis, proprietor of Tony’s Market in Roslindale, carries whole spring lamb, imported groceries, and anything else the sisters need. “I say to my brother, ‘You’re never going to retire,’ ’’ says Cillo, only half joking. “The meat is so good. You get so used to eating a certain way, you get spoiled.’’

Although all supermarkets carry big and small lamb roasts this time of year, Maria Luisa Saraceni heads from her home in Everett to Sulmona Meat Market in the North End to buy a whole baby lamb. “It is delicious, young, and tender,’’ says Saraceni. For Easter, the Abruzzo native will also make pasta alla chitarra — fresh pasta cut with a special tool that resembles a guitar — with a rich beef sauce, soup with little meatballs and escarole, stuffed baby artichokes, roast potatoes, and an eggplant dish that takes a couple of days to prepare.

“Everything in the kitchen takes time,’’ Saraceni says. Cooking it herself means she prepares dishes the way she likes them. “You can cut the salt or whatever. It makes a difference, keeps you healthy.’’ Her daughter doesn’t cook, she says. “She doesn’t want to be a slave to the kitchen.’’

Perhaps the next generation will prepare their mothers’ food when they need to. “Someday when I’m not here, [my children] will cook,’’ says Lucia DiDuca, standing in her sister-in-law Drake’s kitchen. They meet to prepare canescioni, savory cheese turnovers served as appetizers at Easter. “They say, ‘Ma, you’ve got to put it in writing,’ ’’ says DiDuca.

Drake runs the dough through her hand-cranked pasta machine, working by eye and feel. She knows just when the dough is thin enough, just how much filling to mound on the pasta strips, just where to trim them.

The two women are active in the Ciociaro Social Club, in Newton, whose purpose is, at least in part, to keep their fast-disappearing culture alive for future generations. “Our children are born here, and we wanted to save our heritage,’’ says DiDuca. Through the club, children can learn Italian and join in family picnics and potlucks.

Holidays are a time when the pull between the old and the new may seem particularly pronounced. For the old-school, there’s no real contest.

“If we don’t do these things, we don’t get into the spirit of the holiday,’’ says Cillo. “It’s part of my upbringing and, I’m hoping, part of my grandkids’ upbringing.’’

Jane Dornbusch can be reached at jdornbusch@verizon.net.