Gnocchi: Nonna Elsa’s Authentic Italian Cooking
Written by Olivia Bagnarol
They say that there is nothing like an authentic home-cooked meal, and compared to my nonna’s (grandmother’s) cooking, nothing truly compares. I grew up in an Italian family and I gained profound knowledge of the difference between authentic Italian cooking and Americanized versions of Italian dishes. Italian dishes were authentic, in the sense that the majority of our food was homemade and not store-bought, such as sauces, cheese and cured meats.
My nonna and nonno (grandfather) immigrated to Canada from Northern Italy after World War 2 in order to provide a better life for them and their future family. My nonno was the first to move to Canada along with his brothers and they were all employed as bricklayers. Soon after, once my nonno had enough money to make a living, he brought my nonna over as well. They grew up in an Italian neighbourhood in North York, Ontario, and while they were far away from their homeland, they still kept their Italian culture and traditions, which they were able to pass on to future generations.
I was fortunate enough to be able to learn these Italian traditions of food, religion, and language through my grandparents. When I was 5 years old, I used to visit my nonna’s house every Sunday for lunch and as soon as you stepped in through the front door, you could tell by the aroma and banging pots and pans coming from the kitchen that you were about to have a meal that no restaurant could ever measure up to. Whenever my nonna witnessed me finish my entire plate, there was this look of pure joy on her face, as she would say “Questa e la mia ragazza!”(That’s my girl!). I always ate whatever she put in front of me, and to this day, my eating habits have not changed.
Visiting every Sunday for lunch was quite bittersweet. I indulged in simplistic yet flavourful Italian meals one day, and then bland Canadian school lunches the next. It was quite a transition from a full plate of salsiccia con cima di rapa (sausage with broccoli rabe) to a tiny lunch box consisting of an egg salad sandwich or a thermos full of macaroni and cheese.
One day my nonna was making something that I have never seen before. As I quietly came towards her kitchen as she was boiling a pot of potatoes, I asked her what she was making and she enthusiastically replied “Gnocchi!” Gnocchi (NYOK-EE) is a pasta dish that consists of small dumplings made from potato, semolina (derum wheat) flour and egg.
While my nonna did majority of the difficult preparation for the dish, I sat by the counter and observed. When all the ingredients were mixed together, it formed a big batch of dough that had a similar consistency to play dough. My role in this preparation was to roll out the dough into ‘little snakes’, as she would call them, and then cut the dough into little tiny pieces that resemble a dumpling.
Just when I thought the process was over, my nonna grabbed a fork and started to make indents in each tiny dumpling, not to mention, we made over 100. The purpose of these indents was not just for decoration, but it supposedly helped absorb the pomoadoro (tomato) sauce that would soon after be added to the dish. My nonna transferred the dumplings over to the side of the stove and she put on a pot of water to boil. Once the water was boiled, she added a few dumplings at a time and I watched with excitement as the dumplings rose to the top of the boiled pot. Most of the time during this process, I remember my nonno (grandfather) in the background yelling “Si e finito?” (Is it finished?). You could tell by the look in my nonna’s face that she was ready to lash back and say “ How dare you ask me when it’s finished, I don’t see you helping!”
The final step to this dish was to add in the sauce, which I had to run to the basement and grab a fresh jar from the cantina (cold cellar) and sprinkle a little bit of parmiggiano-reggiano cheese on top. As we sat at the kitchen table as a family with the Price is Right or some Italian soap opera on in the background and were about to eat, I looked down at my plate of gnocchi and was proud of the appetizing dish that my nonna and I put together.
It has been nearly two years since my nonna has passed away and I am grateful that I have been able to carry on her recipes and traditions with me. Since she passed, I have been on the search to find a restaurant that serves a plate of gnocchi that comes a close second to hers.
Olivia Bagnarol is a fourth year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto studying sociology and geography. She is interested in the field of health care and disability studies and considers herself to be quite the “foodie.” Check out her instagram account @_thefoodbaby for various recipes!
For an authentic plate of gnocchi and various Italian dishes, Olivia recommends The Grand Chalet, located in Milton.