Traditionally, Easter (Pasqua) marks the end of the long, lean period of privation during Lent, a time when foods such as meat, eggs, butter, and lard were not eaten, and so it was an occasion for an abundant and indulgent feast (though, really, what Italian holiday isn't?).
Even though Lent is no longer as strictly observed as it once was, and in a modern world of imported foods and refrigeration we no longer have the strict dietary impositions naturally set by the seasons and scarcity, Easter is still a time for a celebration, especially at the table.
A popular Italian expression, "Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi," means "Christmas with your parents, Easter with whomever you want." In other words, it's traditional to spend Christmas (Natale) with family, but Easter (though it probably still involves family, as again, most Italian holidays do), is a bit looser, and you're free to celebrate it with your friends.
In the beginning of the 15th century, Italians would color hard-boiled eggs for Easter with herbs, flowers, and onion skins. Today, hollow chocolate eggs containing toy surprises are the most popular Easter treat for Italian children.
The most prominent ingredients in Italian Easter dishes are eggs and lamb, both symbols of renewal and rebirth. The brodetto pasquale of the Basilicata region incorporates both, in a sort of lamb and vegetable frittata. Southern Italians make many types of elaborate savory Easter breads which often incorporate meats, cheeses, and whole eggs, in the shell.
The casatiello from Naples is one such bread, baked into a ring topped with whole eggs. The of the Liguria region was traditionally made with 33 thin layers of dough, one for each year of Jesus's life.
A traditional Italian Easter meal might start off with a soup, such as the Roman brodetto pasquale, a hearty broth thickened with egg and cooked with beef and lamb, or the Naples classic that has become popular throughout the world as Italian Wedding Soup.
There are many sweet Easter breads, as well, the most widespread being the colomba, a dove-shaped sweet yeast bread topped with slivered almonds and crunchy pearl sugar, rather similar in texture and flavor to the classic Italian Christmas cake, panettone. The colomba cake originated in the Lombardy region, but is now popular throughout Italy and in Italian communities abroad.
Another well-known Easter dish is the pastiera napoletana, so popular that now it is eaten year-round. It's a creamy ricotta and semolina cake flavored with lemon zest and orange-blossom water, and traditionally made with wheat berries (symbolizing fertility) and candied orange peel. My version is a lighter, faster, crust-free version that has raisins instead of wheat berries. (The traditional version takes several days to make).