In past centuries, ones of economic hardship, Neapolitans’ ancestors feasted only during religious holidays. It was easier then to distinguish the piatti delle feste, feasting foods, by their richness and variety.
In these more prosperous times, and with the availability of raw materials throughout the year, these lavish dishes can be prepared virtually any time, which makes it seem difficult to talk about “festive meals.”
However, with the approach of Easter (and Christmas), many Neapolitans, beyond their religious beliefs, are seized by an irresistible desire to return to family traditions and to eat the dishes prepared by their forebears.
And thus begins the debate on what, exactly, our real Easter dishes are. On some rules, there’s consensus: fish and lean eating during Holy Week, mussel soup on Holy Thursday, vegetables and meat at the requisite big Easter lunch.
Some foods are compulsory, eaten out of devotion, as if they were written in the genetic heritage of Neapolitans. For instance, In Naples, it’s not Easter without fellata (the blessed dish), oven-roasted kid goat, artichokes or pastiera. But above all, it’s not Easter without tortano and casatiello.
These two savory pies are the real queens of the Easter season, the stars of each appetizer, meal and after meals. The tortano is even essential to the compulsory open-air outing that all Neapolitans do the Monday after Easter.
Casatiello is a typical rustic preparation whose name comes from the Latin caseum (cheese), and true to its name, it’s stuffed with various types of cheese. Four eggs, uncooked and in the shell, are inserted into the dough on the top before the pie is baked. The eggs are fixed to the crust with two strips of dough in the shape of a cross.
The tortano is made with the same dough, but the filling is much more complex and rich: various cheeses, pork cracklings, salami, mortadella. The eggs are present, of course, but are boiled first, cut into wedges and placed inside.
But the most essential ingredient of the Neapolitan tortano is lard, a component that can never be replaced by oil or butter; some housewives, more attentive to the false line taboo than to the rules of healthy traditional Neapolitan cuisine, do not use lard in their tortano. And we believe their punishment should be expulsion from the Neapolitan food community!
In Naples, of course, there’s a saying (in Naples, there’s always a saying): “You are a tortano without lard.” It means you’re a boring person – heavy, unbearable, not digestible, as a tortano would be without its key ingredient.
So let’s forget about diets and devour a lovely slice of tortano. If we must sin, let’s make it a good one.
Editor’s note: It’s Spring Week at Culinary Backstreets, and we’re celebrating with dispatches about warm-weather favorites from a few of the cities we cover.