Italian Carnevale Food Traditions

Giovanna Tonolo of Venice's Paticceria Tonolo with a tray full of Carnival fritole (fritters)
Giovanna Tonolo of Venice's Paticceria Tonolo with a tray full of Carnival fritole (fritters). Marco Secchi/Getty Images

According to le Monnier's Dictionary of the Italian Language, Carnevale derives from " carne levare ("remove meat"), the name of the sumptuous dinner people would hold the night before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent.

Over the years, Carnevale was gradually extended to cover the entire period from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday, and some enterprising souls even go further, adding a last fling on the Sunday after Ash Wednesday, which they call Carnevalino.

In the past, things were especially intense in Venice, where debauched revels went on for weeks, with the revelers donning masks under the theory that what they did while their faces were covered didn't count. Under the modern revival of Carnevale (Venetians stopped celebrating it after the fall of their Republic in the late 1700s) people are responsible for what they do, but that doesn't mean they don't have fun. Nor is Venice the only place Carnevale is celebrated; towns throughout the Peninsula organize merriment, and many of those that are located -- unlike Venice -- where there's no mist to ruin the view hold parades with spectacular floats -- Viareggio's is the most famous.

Why all this merriment? Well, if you've ever been in Northeastern Italy during the winter you'll understand -- the cold air flows down the slopes of the Alps and Apennines and the mist rises up from the many waterways of the Pianura Padana.

There's no sun, little sound, everything's damp, and the thermometer stays pegged just above freezing for weeks on end. People need something to take their mind off of all this, and what could be better than a party, or even a month of parties?

And, of course, people eat. There are some savory dishes associated with Carnival time: Along the Amalfi Coast and throughout much of the South there's a migliaccio di polenta made with corn meal, sausages, and grated cheese, cooked over the stove.

Naples has the sumptuous lasagne di Carnevale; in the past poorer families could only afford it once a year, which meant that every family made secret variations to the recipe and there was a great deal of argument over whose was best (some people no doubt greeted Lent with relief).

Throughout much of the Peninsula, however, Carnevale is an occasion for sweet pastries, usually fritters of one kind or another that are quick to make, fun to make, and fun to eat -- there are three broad categories of these Carnival sweets throughout Italy, and though La Cucina Italiana's special Carnevale insert says they evolved independently in the various regions, I wonder. Lombard chiacchere, Tuscan cenci and Roman frappe sound quite different but look and taste the same; considering how fragmented the regional cuisines of Italy are, these closely related recipes may all date to the last time the Peninsula was unified -- under the Romans.

Savory Carnival Recipes:

  • The Great Carnival Lasagna (
    A spectacular, sumptuous Neapolitan Carnival dish that will stun your guests and take you all of Lent to recover from. But it's worth it!
     
  • Ricotta Lasagna (
    More Neapolitan extravagance, a wonderful winter dish that will again stun your guests and take you all of Lent to recover from.
     
  • Macaroni Pie ()
    The great Italian cookbook author Pellegrino Artusi's version of a rich Emilian dish used to celebrate Carnival -- and the story of what happened to a man who ate one all by himself.
     

Sweet Carnival Recipes:

[Edited by Danette St. Onge]