Damian Sansonetti has baked and eaten Easter bread all his life, but when it comes to braiding the dough for the holiday treat, he has to call over his wife and business partner, llma Lopez.

“Your left…up…across…” she coaches him. As the mother of a 3-year-old girl, she’s had a lot more practice with braiding.

“This guy’s going over, and this guy’s going under, right?” Sansonetti mutters in reply as he braids three logs of bread dough back and forth, over and under.

After the braiding and one more proofing, what will emerge from the oven is a beautifully browned bread that looks deceptively simple. But cut a slice and chew the fine crumb, and it’s more complex than it appears. Bite into a fennel seed and taste a hint of licorice, then feel the soft pop of a golden raisin that adds just a touch of sweetness. Running through the whole slice is a backdrop of lemon and orange zest.

Sansonetti, an Italian-American chef who co-owns the Portland restaurant Piccolo with Lopez, a pastry chef, learned how to make Easter bread from his grandmother, and he suspects his great-grandmother in Italy made it the same way he does today. His family is from the Abruzzi region in central/southern Italy; his grandmother, Ann Benequista Sansonetti, was born in the town of Castel Di Sangro.

Italian Easter bread, pane di pasqua in Italian, is known as pigne in the Sansonetti family (a local dialect? Sansonetti isn’t sure), and it’s a little different from the festive Easter breads with the colorful sprinkles and dyed Easter eggs on top. Sansonetti says his family’s version was more ornate when it was made in Italy, where they decorated the top with dried fruit, or put raw, dyed eggs in the dough that would bake with the bread. Ann Sansonetti preferred flavoring with fennel seeds, golden raisins and anise extract, which she had to buy at the neighborhood pharmacist in Pittsburgh because it was not in wide use in those days and could not be found in supermarket aisles.

“You could always tell when she was making pigne or pizzelles because the whole kitchen always smelled like anise oil,” Sansonetti recalled.

The anise oil came in a big dark bottle with a medicinal dropper for rationing it out. The golden raisins filled a big, clear canister on her kitchen counter. “I thought they were super special,” Damian Sansonetti said. “At the time, you never saw golden raisins around that much. I guess she bought them at the Italian grocery store.”

His voice fell to a hush: “I thought they were these sacred golden raisins.”

Sansonetti with finished loaves. Staff photo by Derek Davis

FOOD AND MEMORY

Ann Sansonetti, now 94, came to the United States when she was 12. After entering through Ellis Island, the family settled in Pittsburgh, where her father found work as a bricklayer and woodworker. Damian Sansonetti still has some memories of his great-grandfather, who fought for Italy in World War I and carried mustard gas burns on the back of his neck the rest of his life. He smelled like wine and salumi, which he made in the family’s basement.

“They would use the wine press to press the prosciutto legs to get the blood out,” Sansonetti said.

Ann Sansonetti and her husband of some 70 years now live in a retirement home just three blocks from the house where they raised their five children. Damian Sansonetti is their oldest grandchild. She taught him how to make cavatelli and other pasta when he was a boy.

“She’d make spaghetti and leave it on the board to dry, and then we’d have it for dinner,” he recalled.

If they didn’t make the pasta themselves, they’d buy it from the local Italian grocery store where it was made fresh every day. The family frequented Mancini’s, a well-known Pittsburgh bakery where they bought Italian bread.

Sansonetti said his grandmother started with recipes, but she only followed them once, and after that trusted her memory and instincts. She cooked and baked by feel and touch. She paid attention, but no matter what she made, and no matter how good it was, “She was never happy with it,” Sansonetti said.

Ann Sansonetti baked lots of Italian cookies and pizzelles, making a small batch of something sweet every day. All of the women in the family took their own versions of Italian cookies to weddings, where a cookie table took the place of a wedding cake and people gossiped about whose cookies weren’t quite up to snuff.

“She’d make wedding soup all the time, but her style of wedding soup, with tiny meatballs, braised green escarole, with pastina and nice cut-up pieces of onion and carrot,” Sansonetti said. “The broth, I don’t know how long it took to cook but it tasted like fresh, roasted chickens.”

THE BREAD, THE SPREAD

The Sansonetti Easter tradition began with church (Sansonetti was an altar boy) and maybe a slice or two of toasted pigne with butter. Later came an Easter egg hunt at his aunt’s house, and food – lots and lots of food. Sansonetti said sometimes – especially when he was younger and the family was smaller – they visited two or three relatives’ homes on Easter Sunday, with a spread laid out at each location.

“There was always ham, and usually some kind of pasta, and then a boatload of side dishes,” Sansonetti said. “We would have lamb sometimes because it was springtime.”

Easter bread was not just for breakfast. It was out all day long, eaten before and after the big meal and as a snack, too.

Orange marmalade is another Easter food tradition for Sansonetti, thanks to his father, Steve Sansonetti, a classically trained chef who attended the Culinary Institute of America and worked as a corporate chef for 25 years. He ran the Carnegie Museum’s dining hall at one point, and cooked for a couple of U.S. presidents.

The ingredients and tools Damian Sansonetti uses to make the Easter bread of his childhood, as well as braids waiting to be woven. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“He could do a banquet for a thousand people and serve Beef Wellington and it would be no problem,” Sansonetti bragged.

For some reason, one Easter Sansonetti’s father made him orange marmalade, and after that it became an annual tradition. To this day, the Portland chef says, whenever he sees orange marmalade he thinks of Easter.

In the Sansonetti family, “everything seemed to revolve around food,” he said. “I can name family members by food, by what they liked and didn’t like.”

What was it like for Ilma Lopez, whose family is from Venezuela, to marry into such a large Italian family? Is a Venezuelan Easter anything like an Italian-American Easter?

“We do eat a ton,” Lopez said, “but it’s super different.”

Venezuelan Easters are less commercial, she said – there are no Easter egg hunts or Easter bunnies. People hike into the mountains on Palm Sunday to gather their palm fronds for church. It’s mostly a religious holiday.

Sansonetti says everyone in his family makes some version of the bread for Easter, adjusting based on personal taste. Staff photo by Derek Davis

GRANDMA COOKS, YOU EAT

Lopez said Ann Sansonetti – “a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, and really skinny, and adorable lady” – is still clearly the matriarch of the family who “tells everyone what to do and how to do it” and “puts food in front of you all the time.”

Does she get upset if the food is left uneaten?

“I don’t know,” Lopez said, smiling. “I usually eat everything she puts in front of me. It’s that rule. It’s the same in my family. If my grandmother cooks, you eat it. Nobody asks if you like it.”

Ever since the couple had their daughter, Isabella, three years ago, they’ve tried to meld family holiday traditions. This year, Isabella will be going on her first Easter egg hunt at Smiling Hill Farm.

Isabella enjoys helping her parents make pasta, and she has helped Sansonetti make the family pigne. The toddler loves cracking open the eggs for the bread, which she calls “hatching” the eggs. (Lopez says the disappointment shows on her little face every time she “hatches” an egg and there’s no chicken inside.)

Even as the fourth generation of the Sansonetti family is learning to make pigne, Ann Sansonetti still makes it herself every Easter. So do Sansonetti’s siblings and other members of the family. Everyone’s bread varies slightly because they’ve adapted it to their own tastes. Some skip the fennel seeds, others use less anise oil. Some of the family bakers leave out the raisins, or substitute black raisins for gold. One aunt likes her loaf wider, another likes the braids super thin and bakes it at a higher temperature so it comes out chewy. But for all of them, Sansonetti says, the bread is still one thing: “Pure memory.”