There is nothing like food to stir up warm family memories.
I was privileged recently to welcome Giovanna and Cirillo Berardozzi, the parents of my dear friend Fiorenzo, to my home and kitchen. They are from the Abruzzo region of Italy, where my Dad's family are from. There was no question what the menu would be... we would make gnocchi!
(Pronounced n'yawk key, these traditional small pasta dumplings made with potato, flour, egg and salt, have always been my favorite)
Because my paternal grandmother became ill when I was a small child, I have very little memory of her cooking in the kitchen. Her wonderful recipes however, continued to be enjoyed by the family, thanks to my Aunt Jean and my Mom, who both learned firsthand from her. Some of my favorite childhood memories are from the days my Dad's Aunt Giulia would come and spend the day with us, making gnocchi. As my grandmother's first cousin, she knew all Grandma's culinary secrets.
Mom would start to prepare the potatoes and get out the huge pasta board and rolling pin (which had been handmade by my grandfather) so we would be ready when she arrived. Tall, and always in a black dress, she would don her apron and quickly get to work.
After she made the dough, we were all pressed into service to make the gnocchi. When you learn a skill like that as a child, it's like riding a bike... the physical memory of it always stays with you.
We would drop the gnocchi gently into the boiling water, and patiently wait for them to float to the top, signifying they were done. Daddy would dip a piece of crusty bread in the ragu warming on the stove, as we anxiously anticipated the imminent feast.
This was a rare treat, since the making of gnocchi was a big production and a good afternoon's work. After Aunt Guilia died, we had gnocchi much less frequently, usually in a favorite Italian restaurant, or on trips to Italy.
When Fiorenzo and I discovered our mutual love for gnocchi, we started making them together occasionally in my kitchen. So when I heard Giovanna was coming for a visit, I was thrilled and so excited for the opportunity to learn from a master! I also took advantage of her expertise in making Spaghetti alla Chitarra, a traditional pasta from Abruzzo made on a stringed box or "guitar".
Friends gathered in my kitchen around the work table enjoying antipasti, including fresh cheese and an amazing dried salami handmade by Giovanna. As we ate, and drank Cirillo’s wonderful homemade wine I knew that life just didn’t get any better than this!
As the potatoes for the gnocchi cooled, Giovanna made the spaghetti. We watched in awe while she expertly rolled out the pasta as she sang us a song. It was all second nature to her. I pulled out my Mom's old chitarra, and she demonstrated how to press the pasta sheet through the strings with the rolling pin.
All of a sudden, there it was... this incredible "square spaghetti" I remembered from my childhood. We cooked the pasta and each had a little taste before we started the afternoon's main project. It was firm, chewy, authentically rustic, and the sauce tasted like Grandma's... I was in heaven!
Then the real work started… making the gnocchi! The potatoes had been baked, cooled and peeled, and Fiorenzo started pressing them through the ricer. Giovanna started with a large ring of flour on the table. She scooped up the riced potatoes, placing them into the center. An egg was cracked and added, along with a bit of salt. Then the mixing started. I was a child again in my mother's kitchen with Aunt Guilia, watching the magic happen. Soon, the flour, potatoes, egg and salt were all expertly kneaded into a smooth dough.
Just as in the old days, everyone joined in as we learned how to form the gnocchi. It wasn't long before the pot of water was boiling, the sauce was simmering, the cheese was grated, and the gnocchi were ready.
Gnocchi are always my favorite, but they taste so much better after spending an afternoon with friends; laughing, drinking wine, and making the gnocchi my hand.... especially under the tutelage of such a beautiful and talented teacher!
Grazie mille Giovanna!