Italian Americans are placing their orders with butchers for tender baby lamb, spiced lamb sausage (cervellata) and specially prepared sweetbreads to ready for the traditional Easter feast, centered on lamb.
And families will be putting together the cheeses, sausages and eggs for the Pizza Rustica, a two-crusted filled pie, typically served during the Easter holiday season."It's traditional to eat the baby lamb," says butcher Franco Mattei, a native of Latina, Italy. "This all stems from religious tradition."
Mattei, who owns Franco's Meat and Deli in the Italian neighborhood of Corona in Queens, N.Y., says his customers will buy half or a whole baby lamb and have him cut it up to grill or roast.
A whole baby lamb, sought after because the meat is succulent, flavorful and tender, will yield 15 to 20 pounds when skinned and cut. Depending on the locale, it can cost anywhere from $70 to $105 for the whole lamb.
As early as February, Franco says he began getting orders for the spiced lamb sausage, cervellata (pronounced chiv-ra-lad-da) or "chivy," for short. A traditional southern Italian and provincial meat, the thin sausage (about 1/2-inch in diameter) is a favorite of the people from Bari, the seaport on the Adriatic Coast of Italy.
Each butcher may vary the "chivy" recipe slightly, but all start with the main ingredient: ground lamb. To it, the butcher usually adds salt and pepper, garlic, fresh parsley, Romano or some other grated hard cheese. Franco says he likes to add a touch of paprika and fresh tomatoes to flavor the sausage.
Sweetbreads, the pancreas of the lamb, are also prepared a particular way for the Easter feast. Jerry Ottomanelli, of Ottomanelli's Meat Market on New York City's east side, says each individual sweetbread is wrapped in caul fat then wrapped around its center with the intestines of the lamb. The intestine resembles a long string and, when assembled, the sweetbreads look like 2-inch-long sausages, pinched in the middle by a band of string. When eaten, the tough texture of the intestines contrasts to the soft sweetbread.
To find sweetbreads prepared this special way, Italians will also flock to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, N.Y., a street full of ethnic color with its crowded butcher shops packed with live chickens, rabbits and animals slaughtered on the spot at the customer's request.
The other integral part of the Easter meal is the Pizza Rustica, a two-crusted pie also referred to as "full pie," "holiday pie" or "carnival pie." But ask Italians for their recipes and you'll get different versions, since the inhabitants of each region in Italy fill their pies with their own special ingredients. These primarily include eggs, sometimes hard-boiled, various types of sausage, prosciutto and cheeses. In some recipes, ingredients are layered one on top of the other to fill the pie while in others, ingredients are mixed together and then poured into the pie shell.
Whatever the recipe, the intent of the rich ingredients of the Pizza Rustica and the lamb delicacies is the same: for Italians, the Easter meal is a time for feasting, a celebration of the end of the fast and abstinence of the Lenten season.
WHOLE BABY LAMB
Ask your butcher to cut up the lamb in small pieces. The taste of the lamb is so delicate that it needn't be seasoned, but if you want some added flavor, season it lightly with salt and pepper, garlic powder and rosemary. You can also make a marinade of these ingredients mixed with lemon and oil.
Whole baby lamb is best grilled or broiled, cooked until it is slightly pink. Time will vary based on the size of the pieces and heat of the fire but plan on about 5 minutes or slightly more a side.
Cut and shape sausage links into spirals, about 3 inches wide. Pierce the spiral with wooden skewers to keep together. Barbecue or broil about 5 minutes on each side. The sausage can also be pan-fried.
Place individual sweetbreads on the barbecue or under the broiler, cooking 5 to 7 minutes per side.