Easter is rarely ranked among the calendar's best food holidays. It's certainly not Thanksgiving, with its magnificent roast turkey, or even Christmas, with its homebaked cookie tradition. But this Sunday is Joey Baldino's favorite feast of the year.
Baldino, chef owner of Zeppoli restaurant in Collingswood, looks forward to spending the day with his extended Italian American family in the South Philly neighborhood where they've been celebrating with the same recipes for generations.
"As a chef, I love the ingredients we start to see this time of year, like fava beans. Plus, it's staying light out longer. It's finally warmer. The springtime is just a great time to celebrate," Baldino says.
There's another reason he especially adores this day: his aunt's Easter bread. Roma Lerro starts baking her rich, round loaves a full week before the holiday. Each is shellacked with sugary white frosting and scattered with multicolored sprinkles.
But not too many, Lerro says. "The young kids get too excited with too much sugar."
It isn't just Joey who waits all year for this festive bread. Neighbors line up 20-deep outside Lerro's door on Wilder Street. Days of baking go into the dozens of loaves she makes each Easter. "It seems like more and more people are on my list every year," says Lerro, who is 80.
While Lerro is baking all those breads, Joey's mom, Regina Baldino, readies other components of the meal. A full week before Easter, she's in pie mode, churning out the ricotta- and rice-filled pastries that are another signature of the day. By Good Friday, the meal's splashiest dish is underway: her famous Easter ham pie.
This rich crust is stuffed with a treasure trove of cured meats and Italian cheese. It's a time-consuming project, but well worth the effort. "This is supposed to be a splurge after going without during Lent," Regina said.
Clustered in the Passyunk Avenue area of South Philly (with a few renegade family members coming in from just over the bridge in South Jersey), the Baldinos throw an Easter party for three generations. Joey's parents live in the Tasker Street home that their parents lived in before them.
The eldest family members recall Easters in South Philly during the '50s and '60s, when a now-closed butcher called Malone's corralled live lambs and rabbits in a makeshift fence on the sidewalk so families could select the freshest Easter roast possible.
Nowadays, after assembling at Annunciation Church for Mass on Easter morning, everyone gathers at that year's appointed house. Little kids hunt for eggs while others enjoy the first piece of that long-anticipated Easter bread. "It's great for breakfast, with lots of butter, and coffee," Lerro says. "But really, we eat it all day long," says Joey.
Soon, in true Italian style, antipasto is broken out. If you've ever eaten at Joey's Collingswood restaurant Zeppoli, you know that the Italian tradition of these premeal nibbles is practically coded into Baldino family DNA. Vegetables, meats, cheese, and olives are accompanied by bottles of red wine made by Anthony Baldino, Joey's dad and the official sous chef of the house.
Regina and her sister eventually take to the kitchen to tend to the first course of Easter dinner. "It's always some kind of soup," says Joey. This year's bowls will be full of a puree of springtime classics: fava and fennel.
Though he's the only trained chef in the family, Joey steers clear of the kitchen on holidays. "When I'm home, I don't cook at all," he says. He defers to his mom's and aunt's skill and experience and insists that, in spite of culinary school, studies in Italy, and a long tenure working for star chef Marc Vetri, these women taught him everything he knows. Ask the family to name the best cook and an argument breaks out: No one will accept the title.
Another annual dish relished by all the Baldinos is a simple-enough-sounding casserole of pasta and cheese. "It's orzo and a mix of cheeses baked up until it's bubbly," Lerro says.
Regina tries every year to make the dish more closely resemble the pasta-and-cheese masterpiece Lerro's mother-in-law cooked when she was living. According to the sisters, she made the perfect version. "We can't do it right, but we have to have it on the table - it's salty and it keeps the men drinking," Regina says.
Joey interjects: "These two are selling themselves short. When they make it, it's delicious. It's definitely one of my favorites."
Seafood, a family favorite, plays a role at every holiday in the Baldino house. This year, sardines will be stuffed with raisins and pine nuts, a combination that reflects the family's Sicilian heritage. Sometimes, Regina makes another of the chef's favorite dishes, calamari with peas. Lately he has adapted this dish for a special at the restaurant. The major difference? His recipe calls for fresh peas. His mom's? "Fresh from the can," says Regina.
Sure, diners at Zeppoli probably prefer fresh vegetables to their canned counterparts, but Joey still thinks his mom's version of the dish tastes best.
"I'll never be able to cook like her or Aunt Roma," he says.
Italian Easter Bread
Makes 2 loaves
1½ cups hot water
1 packet yeast
3¾ cups flour
¼ cup honey
½ cup sugar
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter, diced and softened
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 eggs, hard-boiled
For vanilla glaze:
¼ cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon milk
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Combine the hot water and yeast in a mixing bowl and set aside until foamy.
2. In a stand mixer with the dough hook attached, combine the flour, honey, sugar, egg, egg yolks, vegetable oil, butter, salt and vanilla extract. Mix on low speed, and add in the water-yeast mixture. Increase the speed to medium and mix for 8 minutes.
3. Let the dough rest in a warm spot covered with a towel until tripled in size, about 3 hours. Punch the dough down, and turn out onto a cutting board. Cut into two equal pieces.
4. Shape three long ropes out of each piece and braid with a hardboiled egg in the center. Place the braided dough into a buttered round cake pan and set aside covered in a warm spot until doubled, about 1½ hours.
5. Preheat the oven to 325 °F. Bake the breads until golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes.
6. While the breads are baking, make the glaze by whisking the powdered sugar together with the milk and vanilla. If the glaze seems too thick, add more milk a few drops at a time.
7. Spread the glaze over the breads and top with sprinkles.
Per serving: 239 calories, 5 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, 87 milligrams cholesterol, 46 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Fava Bean Soup
½ cup olive oil
1 red onion, sliced
1 small fennel bulb, sliced
2 pounds dried fava beans
4 cups water
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ teaspoon fennel seeds, toasted
1. Put the fava beans in a large bowl and cover by at least two inches of water. Let soak overnight. Drain.
2. Warm the olive oil in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and fennel and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have softened but not browned, about 8 minutes.
3. Add the fava beans and 4 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until the fava beans are falling apart, about 1½ hours.
4. Puree soup in a blender until smooth and creamy. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with toasted fennel seeds.
Per serving: 408 calories, 24 grams protein, 56 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, no cholesterol, 27 milligrams sodium, 24 grams dietary fiber.
¼ cup pine nuts
½ cup breadcrumbs
½ cup parsley, chopped
¼ cup golden raisins
¼ cup capers
1 pound fresh sardines, filleted
1 lemon, sliced
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
2. For the stuffing, combine the pine nuts with breadcrumbs, parsley, golden raisins, and capers with just enough olive oil to make a wet, sandy mixture.
3. Lay the sardine fillets skin side down and fill with breadcrumb mix, then roll up each fillet as it is filled.
4. Arrange the sardines tightly in a baking dish, placing a lemon slice between each. Drizzle with more olive oil and bake for 15 minutes.
Per serving: 408 calories, 32 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 23 grams fat, 161 milligrams cholesterol, 932 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Italian Easter Meat Pie
Makes two 8-inch pies
For the dough:
1½ cups flour
3 eggs, beaten
¼ cup vegetable shortening, melted and cooled
4 tablespoons water
For the filling:
1½ cups grated Parmesan cheese
1 pound sweet basket cheese
3 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
½ pound ham
½ pound salami
½ pound mortadella
1½ pounds ricotta cheese
1 pound mozzarella, diced
5 fresh eggs, beaten, divided
Ground black pepper, to taste
Parsley, to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 325 °F.
2. For the dough, combine the flour, eggs, vegetable shortening, and water in a mixing bowl. Mix well with a wooden spoon, form into a ball, and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for one hour. Divide into four equal pieces and roll each out into a 10-inch round about ¼ inch thick.
3. Press two of the dough rounds into the bottom and up the sides of two 8-inch round cake pans.
4. Layer with Parmesan, basket cheese, hard-boiled eggs, ham, salami, mortadella, ricotta, and mozzarella. Pour four beaten eggs over filling, evenly dividing it between pans. Add parsley, black pepper to taste.
5. Top with the remaining dough rounds, trim edges, and press to seal. Brush top with the remaining egg.
6. Bake until golden brown, about 30 to 40 minutes. Let stand at least 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
Per serving: 522 calories, 35.3 grams protein, 14.6 grams carbohydrates, 0.9 gram sugar, 35.8 grams fat, 207 milligrams cholesterol, 1076 milligrams sodium, 0.5 gram dietary fiber.