One of our favorite pasta dishes resides at Coltivare. (Photo by Max Burkhalter)
Did you know that the word gnocchi is thought to come from nocca, Italian for “knuckle,” or from the Lombard word knohha, which translates to “knot.” It’s a foodstuff most often associated with northern Italy, but as anyone who’s ventured to the country knows, gnocchi can be found virtually everywhere in Italia, made from many things, and I like being able to order it in a lot of places. I should add, of course, that I like it when the gnocchi are good.
One of my favorite cookbooks is titled Il cucchiaio d’argento (The Silver Spoon). First published in 1950, it’s a comprehensive and beautiful book, full of recipes worthy of the time spent cooking them. Its opening words: Eating is a serious matter. And, in an example of how elemental gnocchi are to the cuisine, The Silver Spoon‘s pages contain 18 varieties of gnocchi … Parisian, Roman, Parmesan, alla Bava, Walnut, potato and nettle gnocchi … you get the picture, and it’s beautiful. As the book states, “Potato gnocchi takes pride of place as an all-Italian classic.”
But while potatoes might be the old man in the gnocchi empire, they do not reside there alone. As I said, good gnocchi is a thing of wonder. It’s comforting, it’s delicious, it’s something for which sauces were made. And this week in Houston I ate a very good gnocchi dish. In fact, in my life thus far I have had a lot of gnocchi, and this one — made of ricotta, not potato — is up there among the best on my personal list.
I wrote earlier that I like good gnocchi. Lumpy, heavy, doughy gnocchi are bad, and, unfortunately, too numerous. Stay away from them. Do not eat them. Not sure what a great gnocchi tastes like?
It’s served at Coltivare, where we found ourselves on Wednesday night. (Most of you know this restaurant, have been there, have enjoyed its garden while waiting on a table.) Ryan Pera, the chef at this restaurant in The Heights, is plating eight to 10 ricotta pillows on the dish, along with sublimely prepared wilted greens, parmesan, and balsamic. When you order this dish, which is $18 at Coltivare, before you do anything else, be sure to put an isolated gnoccho — one that has not mingled with the rest of the components on the plate —in your mouth.
It will be warm, and you can appreciate the texture. Crisp exterior — whoever finished the ones I had practices great technique — surrounding a luscious interior. I’m not sure what the cook mixed with the ricotta, and perhaps it was nothing more than salt and pepper, egg, and a bit of parmesan, but the result was, as I have said, remarkable. At a certain magical point, the crisp marries the soft, and if you let it do so with patience, you will, I hope, appreciate the time you spend at the table at Coltivare.
The way to eat the remaining gnocchi is simple: make sure to get a bit of parmesan, balsamic, greens, and gnocchi on each forkful. No salt necessary. Really, nothing else was necessary. Acid, the good bitterness that properly sautéed greens provide, the saltiness of the cheese, and the miraculous things that these gnocchi are. You have a thing done well.