Gnocchi – or potato dumplings – are tender morsels of delight and the ideal vessel for tomato sauce, pork ragu, clams, sage butter, and a generous snow of pecorino
I will always be grateful to the person who described Testaccio – the part of Rome I call home – as being shaped like a large wedge of cheese. It’s true, with one side of the wedge provided by the straight via Marmorata, the other by the ancient city wall, with the river Tiber providing the deep curve between the two. The cheese would have to be pecorino romano, the creamy white, piquant sheep’s milk cheese so beloved in this city.
At first I lived in the heart of the wedge, next to the old market, then on the sharply cut side, and now I live on a street that runs parallel to the city wall and near the old slaughterhouse. In each of the three flats, I have been, more or less, above a family-run trattoria – there are dozens in this area – all of which feel like extensions of people’s homes, all of which serve up traditional food.
It is extremely traditional food. The fried antipasti and bruschetta; the thick minestre and classic Roman pastas; the rosemary-scented meat and offal dishes that were born in this the slaughterhouse district; the vegetables Rome is so rightly proud of, tangles of bitter chicory, crisp puntarelle, braised artichokes, courgettes like fluted coins cooked until unfashionably soft.
Many trattorias also offer daily specials, often following an informal, unscientific, weekly recipe calendar that has evolved over centuries, based partly on religious rules – eating fish on lean days, for example. Friday is the day for pasta and chickpeas or salt cod, Saturday for Roman-style tripe with mint and pecorino, Sunday for fettuccine with chicken livers and then roast lamb, Monday for rice and endive in broth, Tuesday for pasta and beans, Wednesday for whatever you fancy, and Thursday for gnocchi.
Giovedì Gnocchi (Gnocchi Thursday): music to many Romans’ ears, my four-year-old Roman at least (who also shakes his pinched fingers at my pronunciation). It is now my tradition, too. If we feel like going out for gnocchi, we walk across the piazza to Piatto Romano, a spare but comfortable place that serves up, good, tasty food with no fuss. We go often, know what to order, and the familiarity and comfort makes us blind to imperfections. On a Thursday at this time of year we are set in our ways: two artichokes, one fried, one braised, then two plates of gnocchi with whatever is offered: tomato sauce, pork-rib ragu, the sauce from the oxtail stew, and if they are on the menu, clams.
Gnocchi, meaning “little knots”, are small dumplings and can be made of breadcrumbs, ricotta, vegetables, rice flour, chestnuts, semolina, or in this case for Thursday’s gnocchi, potato. For every 300g of potato, you want up to 150g of plain flour, which you add gradually, kneading and squeezing until you have a soft, consistent dough that feels lovely to handle. Practice is the best advice I have been given. Some, most notably for me the brilliant Oretta Zanini de Vita, suggest adding an egg, two even, which produces more robust gnocchi, which is reassuring for someone like me who has watched a few disintegrate in the pan.
Eggless gnocchi, though, are undoubtedly more tender: small potato pillows that bounce slightly in your mouth. I added an egg for years, until I finally plucked up the courage to go without. Eggless gnocchi need a steady, not-rollicking, boil, and to be scooped out of the pan the moment they bob to the surface. As for cooking the potatoes, some people bake them. I find boiling them whole then drying in a hot pan before peeling works a treat. If you turn out to be a gnocchi fan, you may want to invest in a potato ricer.
What to use as sauce? A simple tomato one maybe, perhaps bolstered with some pancetta and pecorino for an amatriciana of sorts. Butter and sage is a simple but luxurious alternative: melt 50g of butter and then let some sage leaves sizzle in it. Anna del Conte’s gorgonzola melted in cream with sage and lots of black pepper is a treat, as are clams as you would serve them with spaghetti alle vongole, meaning coaxed open in a hot pan with a little extra virgin olive oil and some chopped parsley. All gnocchi options are excellent on any day of the week, but especially on a Thursday.
Gnocchi di patate (potato gnocchi)
In Rome, the pasta course is called the primo and is modest, because something else is coming after, so this amount serves 4. We often have this alone, in which case it serves two adults and a child generously. If you double up, cook in two, even three batches.
Serves 4 as a starter
600g floury potatoes (eg russet)
300g plain flour (you probably won’t need all of this)
1- 2 eggs (optional)
1 Scrub but don’t peel the potatoes, boil them whole in salted water until tender. Drain, then put the empty pan back on a low heat until it is dry, add the potatoes and let them dry for a moment, too. Once the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them, then pass them through a potato ricer into a bowl, or mash them with a fork. You can also do this with the grating attachment of a food processor. If you are going to add an egg, do it now and mix well.
2 Turn the mixture out on to a floured work surface, add flour to the potato and work it in. Continue adding flour and kneading until you have a consistent dough that no longer sticks to your hands. The amount of flour will vary; the most important thing is the feel of the dough.
3 Dust the work surface with flour, pull off an egg-size lump, roll it into a 2cm-thick rope, then cut the rope into 1cm pieces. At this point, if you want you can make the distinctive grooves with a gnocchi board or by pressing the gnocchi gently on a cheese grater or the back of a fork. Lay the gnocchi on a clean tea towel.
4 Bring a large pan of water to the boil, add salt, stir, then gather up the tea towel so as to gently drop all the gnocchi in at once. Once they bob to the surface, scoop them out with a slotted spoon. Have a warm serving plate and the sauce ready, so when the gnocchi are cooked, you put them straight on the plate, top with the sauce and serve.
This article was written by Rachel Roddy, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 12th January 2016 14.12 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010