Known as Quarrelsome, or the 40th day, in Italian, Lent is the word Catholics use to describe the fast before Easter. Of course, one of the more well-known traditions during Lent are Meatless Fridays, on which Catholics refrain from eating meat. This Lenten fasting really begins on Ash Wednesday (Mercoledì delle Ceneri) and every Friday until Easter arrives.
Ash Wednesday takes place 46 days before Easter Sunday, and is chiefly observed by Catholics, although many other Christians observe it too. Ash Wednesday is the day after Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday or Martedì Grasso in Italian), the last day to party--essentially the end of the Carnivale season in Italy.
Ash Wednesday comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting. The practice includes the wearing of ashes on the head. The ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us. As the priest applies the ashes to a person's forehead, he speaks the words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Even though Italy is a strictly Catholic country--where most Catholic holidays are also National holidays--self-denial during Lent it is no longer a strict requirement but a matter of personal principle. In modern times, fasting during Lent in practice doesn't mean starving oneself, but professing a Lenten Promise, such as giving up foods that are seen as excesses... typically, dolce and chocolate. But giving up meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent is still a popular notion, with fish becoming the main protein during this period.