Pillow Soft: A Love Letter To Gnocchi

The first time I ever saw a bidet, I peed in it. I was young; I wasn’t very well traveled, and, well, the porcelain bathroom apparatus for washing one’s nether-regions found in many European hotels and homes looked like a toilet. That was in Florence. And it was also on that trip when I first learned about gnocchi (which I’d grossly mispronounced). And since then I’ve had a bit of a torrid culinary romance with the dumpling.

I order it in restaurants, where, if made right, is pillow soft. I buy them in supermarkets – at least when I can find them. Just last week, I was wandering around a big chain supermarket in Los Angeles unable to find my favorite dumpling. When I uttered the word “gnocchi” to an employee, she just stared back at me. After the third supermarket employee asked me “what’s a gnocchi?” I gave up.Gnocchi, for the uninitiated (listen up, LA supermarket employees) are little Italian dumplings. They’re usually made with potatoes but sometimes restaurants serve gnocchi – pronounced nyo-kee – made with ricotta. If you’re in Rome and obeying the traditional day-of-the-week eating agenda, Thursday is gnocchi day and that means many restaurants will offer it as a special. The word itself, which is in the plural, could mean “lumps,” but others have argued it comes from the word “nocchio,” which is a knot in wood, or possibly “nocco,” meaning “knuckle.” The origins of gnocchi are even less clear – though most culinary historians say that gnocchi was absorbed into the Roman Empire’s culinary traditions via conquest, likely from the Middle East.

This is an intriguing example of proto globalization. An ingredient or dish that is inextricably tied to a certain culture did not originate in that culture. Knowing this, it was all the more fitting that when some friends and I had a gnocchi-making competition, I did something radical. Anna Watson Carl, food writer and chef, I feared, was going to easily win. I had to do something crazy. I didn’t make straight-up gnocchi, which is sometimes served with pesto or a tomato-based ragu or a brown-sage butter sauce. I made kimchi gnocchi, which I’d named Gnocchi3000. True to the dumpling’s murky origins, I was re-appropriating it for another culture. This time it was getting fused between Italy and Korea. And it was simple enough to do: I infused kimchi spices, of which I’d procured at a supermarket in New York’s Korea Town, into a traditional batch of potato gnocchi. Then I made a brown sage butter (I opted for goat butter) and topped it all off with pancetta and pieces of kimchi.

The other contestants besides Anna were food and travel writer Jessica Colley and Time Magazine photo editor Natalie Matutschovsky. Travel writer and historian Tony Perrottet was meant to compete but instead he just came to eat. The other competitors cooked the more traditional variety. I didn’t get a chance to try everyone’s because I was cooking. But I re-call there was butternut squash gnocchi with a brown sage butter; there was also potato gnocchi with a tangy ragu. They were all delicious and we had no idea which way the judges – in this case Savuer senior editor Gabriella Gershenson and Bon Appetit digital editor (and author of the new book, “The Turk Who Loved Apples“) Matt Gross – were going to go.

In the end, they said it was, indeed, a tough decision but they went with the one that, in their words, they “just wanted to keep on eating.” And it was mine. I have to admit, I didn’t see this coming but I’ll take it.

It’s unlikely on my next trip to Italy, I’ll see kimchi gnocchi on any restaurant menus. Just a lot of traditional ways of preparing the dish, which is fine with me.

As for any bidets I may encounter, I’ll gladly leave them be.

[Photo by David Farley]