WHEN the retired carabiniere wedged next to me on the plane to Venice would not stop talking about the wild asparagus he forages in springtime, I figured I was on my way to the Easter promised land. A country where both food and holidays are obsessions from birth had to hold a surfeit of ideas for what to cook on a day Americans associate primarily with ham and lamb and eggs and chocolate, not to mention chocolate eggs.
A week later I was still looking for the great Italian feast dish. I had seen plenty of chocolate eggs -- huge ones, garishly wrapped, in every pasticceria from Venice to Trieste and beyond. And I had spotted a couple of roadside signs on industrial bakeries for colomba, the dove-shaped twist on Christmas panettone that the reference books back home had assured me is a big deal for Pasqua. But where was the turkey of Easter?
The answer came from my friend Diego Orlando, the interpreter of all mysteries Italian.
“What do we eat?” he asked, echoing my question as we passed another “colomba” on a punchboard sign along a highway in Veneto. “Whatever we want. We have a saying: ‘Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi.’ It means, ‘Christmas with family, Easter with friends.’ You cook what you like.”
Hearing that was as liberating as learning you can actually have cheese with seafood in Italy, as I had when prawns arrived sprawling over my ricotta and artichoke ravioli at Ristorante Vesuvio in Venice. I realized I had already found many things I would like to cook for a spring lunch or dinner. In fact, I was stumbling over all manner of great ideas that didn’t necessarily travel. For starters, consider prosciutto cured in beer and beet greens braised in beer at La Lampada, a pub outside Venice where Diego’s friend Giorgio Copparoni cooked us an extraordinary meal that ended with absinthe and two kinds of grappa.
But three dishes in particular -- an asparagus flan, crespelle filled with zucchini and prosciutto, and a strawberry crostata -- would make a fine menu all on their own. Or they could be part of a more traditional meal built around ham or lamb (or turkey).
THE flan was the first course at lunch at Mediterraneo, a wine bar in a stunning little town in Veneto called Badoere that could have been the setting for “High Noon.” There it was made with bruscandoli, which Diego translated as wild asparagus and his beer-obsessed friend said was hop shoots; it was set onto “fonduta di Parmigiano,” a lovely light cream sauce with a granular texture.
That carabiniere from the plane might be able to find the bruscandoli, but commercial asparagus works just as well. The secret of the richness of an Italian flan (sformato) is in the foundation: thick bechamel rather than plain cream. A few asparagus tips left whole add much-needed texture to the flan, elevating it from asparagus pudding.
For the sauce, I substituted Fontina because it has a more mellow flavor than Parmigiano; it suits the borderline sweetness of the asparagus. But the sauce could be dispensed with altogether, especially if the flan is served as a side dish rather than a first course.
The crespelle arrived at lunch in Trieste at Re di Coppe, one of the classic “buffets,” small cafes that serve a limited menu of only time-honored dishes in a city that has been Austrian and Italian and clings to both genetic codes. There they were thick, soft crepes folded half-moon style over zucchini and prosciutto, glazed with a light mushroom-flavored sauce, then topped off with grated cheese and chopped parsley.
Crepes might not seem very Italian, but roll them up and call them cannelloni and you understand exactly where they fit into the cuisine. They are usually made from the same batter the French mix up -- flour, salt, eggs, milk and butter -- and they are sometimes folded into just what the French make of them, beggar’s purses, as I had them in Piedmont last fall. Occasionally they turn up in restaurants in Tuscany, particularly stuffed with spinach and ricotta, but in Trieste they were simply offered as “something very local.”
It was tempting to think of them as Italian enchiladas, but they were far more sophisticated. The zucchini was almost jumping with flavor, barely cooked and still bright green, and the ham added both saltiness and richness. The sauce was the little excess that brought all the flavors into harmony, and the cheese was almost overkill, which is why I omitted it.
The crespelles are easy if time-consuming (they can be cooked a day ahead and refrigerated tightly wrapped to stay supple), and the filling and sauce are even simpler. The technique is very French: Ladle just enough batter into a lightly buttered pan to coat it, cook until the bottom browns lightly, then flip the crepe over to brown the second side. It’s foolproof, and you don’t even need special equipment. A 9-inch saute pan works fine.
Dessert at that same restaurant in Trieste was another inspiration, much more so than apple strudel that was also on offer and was much more representative of where we were on the border of Eastern Europe. Apples and raisins baked in phyllo seem heavier, more wintry than the thick strawberry tart in a dense rustic crust with a very rich filling, almost like a Bavarian cream. That tasted a little dated, though. Mascarpone, and nothing but mascarpone, struck me as fresher and, oddly enough, lighter too.
As with so many Italian dishes, crostata sounds more appealing than the English word, tart. And as with all Italian dishes, the quality of the ingredients is key. Really ripe and juicy strawberries are essential, and for Californians they are in peak season right now, especially Seascapes or Gaviotas at farmers markets.
To round out the meal, you could serve an insalata mista, a good toss of any lettuce, grated carrots, sliced tomatoes and maybe some julienned fennel or red onion.
But to make the whole menu more festive, borrow one more page from the Italians. Pour Prosecco, and plenty of it.