I love Italy with every ounce of my being. If I cannot be cocooned in its boundless warmth soon, I’m certain my heart will burst. Of course, when you voluntarily leave your career to switch directions, working as an unpaid intern and low-paid writer – whilst living off savings, it’s slightly more difficult to jet set in a fashion to which I am accustomed. Spoiled brat sob story aside, I find it nearly impossible to pick a favorite region of Italy: all are different, but yet so similar, warm, and so…Italian. Rome exudes passion. Tuscany envelops you in il bel far niente (the beauty of doing nothing). The magnificence of northern lake country, with the perfectly mirrored Julian Alps spanning from lake to sky, confirms the existence of God. Venice sighs palpable heaviness shrouded in achingly beautiful, neglectful melancholy, while simultaneously igniting resound perseverance. The Italian coast combines Rome’s passion, Tuscany’s il bel far niente and the Julian Alps’ tremendous beauty with nostalgic childhood glee and blue seas for splashing.
I arrived on my première Italian holiday via train from southern France. My general destination was Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera. Cinque Terre – whose name means ‘five earths,’ is the epitome of Italian simplicity. Set against a backdrop of sea melding with earth in perfect harmony, the panorama is a seamless procession of blue sea to purple, pink and yellow houses, to green mountainside dotted with lemon groves, ending with a mirrored blue-hued sky. The day I pulled into the Riomaggiore train station was the day that I fell in love. How could I not? I’d finally witnessed a tangible sensation of the word ‘majestic’ and I never want to let it go.
On the train, I met a boy (oh stop with your dirty mind…he was like my little brother and this is a PG love story). We got on well and decided to bum around together for a while – hey, it’s cheaper and more entertaining. Then we met a two-guy-one-girl trio, canceled our respective sleeping arrangements and set off with recently acquired flagons of wine in search of a communal house. (I repeat, this is a PG story but do stay tuned for the Rome segment…). The wine, purchased at the train station, was some of the best I had tasted in my staggering 21 years of vino-sity experience. God, I love Italy. We found a little white house nearly hidden by latticed purple flowers. Two stories, one bathroom with a shower over the toilet and three beds. We were home. We handed our money over, threw our backpacks down on whatever shut-eye vessel crossed our respective path first, changed into slightly less trainified clothes and ventured on towards the night. Our journey – one meandering through tunneled cobble streets sandwiched between the Mediterranean on the horizon and lemon-studded, terraced cliff sides – led us to an unassuming seaside café. We acquired a couple new friends on the walk and all sat down to a table that ALREADY HAD DECANTERS OF WINE ON IT. I repeat, I love Italy. You can’t help but love a place that serves wine like it’s bread…alongside fresh bread and pressed olive oil. If you can, you kick puppies.
In addition to a small selection of delicious antipasti, there were two main options. Americanos likely just rolled their eyes at the lack of selection, but simplicity is the pervasive theme in Italian cooking. It’s always quality versus quantity here.
I was utterly ill-prepared for my first meal in Italy. I had ordered gnocchi al pesto. As many potato variations as this half-limey girl has eaten over the years, I’d never had the pleasure of an introduction to gnocchi. Sacrilege, this is. When the waiter flourished bowls and bowls filled with what I would soon refer to as ‘Heaven’, I sat, staring at my food – ravenously – but with unexpected, involuntary restraint. It was simply too beautiful to devour without appreciation. It’s a unique restraint achievable only before a truly glorious meal. Something clicked. Food is meant to satisfy your heart and soul, not be a utilitarian endeavor. It should bring you health, gratitude, satiation and joy. 21 years spent as a picky eater and Italy changed me in one hour – I finally got ‘it.’ Eventually, wine-induced hunger wins out, you fervently thank the food gods – and maybe God too – for the morsels that will soon grace your mouth. Then you dig the heck in. I put one piece on a fork, lifted it to my mouth and ate my first gnocchi dotted with pesto.
My heart will never be the same. The gnocchi was perfectly light, fluffy and airy with enough substance and chew to make it as satisfying of oxytocin. To this day, the pesto that I had in Cinque Terre cannot be beat. It’s not possible to make better pesto – don’t bother trying. Ligurian pesto is the Dyson of pesto. I’m convinced they ground up leprechauns to make their pesto so brilliantly green. To be cliché – it makes the Emerald City look shabby. That meal marked a dramatic turning point in my culinary experience. Specifically, it was the impetus for the culinary passion that would eventually launch this blog. It was the meal that made me want to be a chef, and more importantly, made me realize that maintaining ingredients’ intergrity is paramount.
Fast forward ten years and I appear to have culitvated a habit of cooking Italian foods to alleviate some of the heartache I feel from being stuck on this side of the pond (my fourth and most recent visit was in 2009). I have been making Bolognese and pomodoro and zucchini blossoms and this crispy gnocchi like crazy for months now. I’m not entirely sure what made me throw the gnocchi into the frying pan one night. I remember having vague recollection of seeing a crispy version of a regional gnocchi in Cooking with Italian Grandmothers; but really, I prefer the textural contrast of crispy gnocchi with a soft, pillowy inside. Plus, the cast-iron was sitting there all lonely and idle. This non-Paleo sanctioned dish of glory comes together in about five minutes and there are boundless variations you can make. Five minutes assumes that you are using previously made gnocchi that have been frozen – you can use a trusted store bought version (when I don’t have homemade gnocchi in the freezer, I use fresh, store made sweet potato gnocchi from Whole Foods). You can throw in whatever veggies, herbs or protein that you have on hand or leave them out completely. I have made crispy gnocchi in a Tikka Masala sauce before – further proving its versatility.
Versatility aside, my absolute favorite way to prepare this gnocchi is with pesto (Central Market’s pesto is my fave). Usually, I throw in peas and zucchini and basil and toss with shaved pecorino. The following recipe is a vegetarian, green, crispy gnocchi dish that will please everyone.
Crispy Gnocchi al Pesto
One package of favorite Gnocchi (suggested Sweet Potato Gnocchi)
One-half cup favorite pesto (suggested Central Market basil pesto), plus more if desired
Two Cups frozen or fresh peas, optional
One Large zucchini, quarter into quarter-inch sections
One-third cup shaved or grated Pecorino Romano
Eight to 10 basil leaves, julienned
One tablespoon olive oil
Salt and Pepper to Taste
Heat salted water, bringing to a boil. While you are waiting for the water to boil, sear the zucchini in a bit of olive oil over a medium high heat (salting lightly) for about three minutes. Once water boils, prepare gnocchi according to instructions – generally this will take no longer than two minutes and the gnocchi will float to the top of the pot. You will also add your frozen peas to the boiling water with the gnocchi. Strain the gnocchi and peas and add to the zucchini pan. Sear the gnocchi until crispy on both sides, taking care not to let it sit too long or it will begin to break. Stir in pesto and turn off the heat. Top with Pecornio Romano and basil and cracked black pepper to taste. Buon Appetito!