Nonna’s Gnocchi: A Real Fucking Treat

Nonna’s Gnocchi: A Real Fucking Treat (A recipe)

Today I’m going to pass on a secret that’s been in my family for at least a generation or two, and show you how to whip up a batch of Nonna’s homemade gnocchi which, aside from being the cheapest gourmet-sounding meal this side of the poverty line, is the only thing I ever learned how to cook with conviction and mild success; apart from scrambled eggs on toast, which I still fuck up on occasions.

But before we get started I want to give you a bit of background info. First of all, I swear. A lot. A gift from my father before he went the way of all alcoholic diabetics with a monumental appetite for refined sugar. I also have a birthmark on the back of my left thigh shaped like the Eiffel Tower, or an ice-cream cone; it depends on how far I bend over.

As for the recipe, it all came from my Nonna—a stringy old bird from the north of Italy who, like many folk after the war, found herself on a boatful of other white-looking immigrants bound for Australia to work their arses off and get called a bunch of ‘good-for-nothing wogs’. She was the only one in those days who’d bothered to learn any English, which made her pretty popular around the markets and hospitals and court houses and anywhere else where monolingual Italians used to turn up with any frequency.

Nonna was of the old school of cooks: she could march into any kitchen, sift through the shit on the shelves and with nothing but a handful of flour and a stern look, cook a decent family meal, or a snack for passing Nazis, and by three-thirty in the afternoon she’d have the whole house licking their lips and loosening their pants asking where the nearest couch was. Depending on which day you caught her, her skills in the kitchen were either a talent, a gift, or a wicked burden. But whatever her mood, she’d never tell you to do up your fly and get off the bloody couch until at least the coffee had been served. And no one, except my mother and sister, had to help her do the washing up. Thank Christ for that. And no matter who you were—friend, neighbour, dentist, rude man in line at Medicare—she’d touch you on the cheek or on the shoulder when you spoke to her, because she knew that everyone needed something extra, something tactile, to show that other people were listening to them, and she’d leave you with some nugget of wisdom or down-to-earth advice, even if it involved the best way to take up a pair of men’s trousers.

Okay, so I’m painting a pretty rosy picture here—she might had whacked her kids around a bit too, and shot a few of the neighbours’ dogs because they pissed on her azaleas—but she was generally alright, and I have never understood how, from such a sweet lady as my Nonna, came the rancorous crab monster that is my mother.  

The Instructions, or ‘Just Do What I  Fucking Say for Once’

I know, I know. After you haul your arse from Woolworths carrying two kilos of flour and potatoes, five bottles of wine and a enough canned tomatoes to paint the moon red, the last thing on your mind is strapping on your ex-wife’s apron and sweating like pig wrestler over an oven. But that’s what you do when your mother, sister, and flat-faced turd of a nephew invite themselves around for an afternoon bitch session, don’t you? You pull out your god damn finger, scrape the mould out of the fridge, vacuum the walls and hide the unopened mail. They’ll be here at four, but, knowing your sister, they’ll arrive an hour early just to surprise you so they can say, “I told you so. Didn’t I tell him, mamma? That it would lead to all this. You’re such an utter loser, Robert.”

So let’s open that Pinot Grigio and get stuck in before I lose the will to breathe.

First pour yourself another glass of that five-dollar plonk. Throw a handful of ice in there too for good measure. The stuff tastes like horse’s piss, but you’re gonna need it to get through all that potato peeling. That’s it, peel away… just like the world peels at you, scraping away the best years of your life. Maybe you’ll find a new skin underneath, one that will be good for another forty years of misery. Do the big ones first, they’re the easiest, you lazy bastard, and, when you have enough of them—a kilo will do—you can throw the little ones off the balcony later, test your aim on the neighbour’s cat.

My sink sits under a window that looks out over the trees to the city skyline. A nice enough view, especially if you’re rubbing elbows with the finest lady in the world; when you’re washing up, and she’s wiping, and you catch each other’s eye every now and then, and you’re both looking out into the stretch of blue sky, second guessing each other about how hot it’s going to be down to the beach, and bargaining over sections of the weekend newspaper. Sadly, you’re not. You’re bent and sweating from your cracks. Maybe I’ll just keep peeling potatoes for the rest of my life. Kilo after kilo, until I’m up to my elbows in rotting compost.

Wait a minute—we need more ice. Scratch it off the side of the freezer. Tastes the same. Tastes like snow they say, though I’ve never seen snow apart from on the telly.

Don’t forget to scrub the pot, especially if it’s been sitting in the bath for a week and covered in congealed vomit. Fill it and bring to the boil. Nice and slow. If you care for the environment, pack a lid on the top so it doesn’t take shitting hours to bubble, and, yep… there you go—you’re onto your second bottle.

Did I tell you to quarter the potatoes? Because if I didn’t, you should probably do that before you throw them into the boiling water. If you’re stupid and have already put them in whole, maybe a little pain will do you some good? Burn away that passivity that makes you unbearable to be around. The last time I pulled a potato from the ground, a real potato, I was fifteen. Back when I used to think wearing my cap backwards to school was pretty cool. We grew some vegetables, tubers and carrots; the class was called ‘agricultural science’, which was really fifty minutes of shovelling dirt and trying not to step in pig shit. That was real farming. My most significant relationship with food production these days is throwing a three-kilo sack of genetically-modified intestine grenades into my shopping basket, while trying not to get my boat shoes tainted by the organic raisins some meatsack has dropped in the discount aisle.

You can watch the pot boil if you want, but it won’t help. Believe me, I’ve tried. Go and do what I do: smoke a joint and try to forget about why half of the contents of your wardrobe are gone, and you’re still sleeping on an unmade mattress on the floor. Yeah.

Nonna gave you this blanket she used to have as a kid (the one from Italy that look like a hundred nicotine addicts had polished their teeth with it) and a some silver brooch that has the name of your grandfather on it, and tells you not to say anything to your mother. No sweat, Nonna. At twelve years of age you’re already mute around your parents, and the only thing that your mother’s going to know about your life is that you hate it. You hate it more when your sister finds it stashed between your heavy metal magazines, rats on you, and your mother cracks you one with a camera strap. “That was my father’s,” she wails, not even counting the lashes she’s dishing out. Most prisoners got ten or something. My punishment was measured according to how many syllables my parents could spit out before they withdrew to find their asthma pumps. “He left it to me!” she shouted. “How dare you steal it from me!” Oh, please. The camera strap was yours by the way, and she took the brooch and you never saw either of them again. She dodges your questions when you ask where they are now. What. A. Bitch.

Making the Gnocchi, or ‘Don’t Make the Gnocchi. As if I Give a Toss’

Let’s fast forward to the ideal situation, in which your ramming a fork into one of those little guys, the potatoes I’m talking about now, and his head splits as if he’s landed from a satellite onto a concrete bench. That’s how you know they’re ready. Turn off the gas, or the electricity or whatever, then drain them. If you don’t have a fancy fifty-dollar colander like the one Fiona left behind, (probably by mistake), use a t-shirt. Use the one you’re wearing would be best, it will save you a trip to the laundry basket.

Now here’s where the real insider knowledge comes in: once you’ve drained the spuds, put them straight back into the hot pot. Don’t argue with me, or try to work out why, just do it. And don’t think about taking another sip of your wine before you do it. You want to steam out all the water, let it sizzle a bit, see that water evaporate … just like a wisp of hope. You’ve seen that before, haven’t you?

“Cook out the water,” my Nonna  used to whisper to me, and then tap her temple as if she were revealing the origin of the fucking universe. “Makes them go fluffy.”

Hey, this bottle of wine is tasting better already. Do you have a masher? I do. It’s as long as my arm, and looks sharp enough to dig a grave in a clay mine. Once I nearly killed Bianca’s (my sister’s) dog with it. Hit it square in its ugly face after it attacked me (after I threw a newspaper at it (after Bianca told me she wished I was a dog)). Or did I use a fork? You can also use a fork to mash if you don’t mind wasting the next half hour of your life. But, if you’re not as stupid as my sister, I’ll just assume that you have a masher. Mash the will out of those potatoes, crush their faces and stifle their starchy protests. Mash! Mash! Mash! That’s right, just like you mashed me, you little fucks. You’re lucky I don’t set the torch on you, turn you into a mashed brulée; you’re even luckier the white is chilled because drinking warm wine is worse than murdering a dog, let me tell you.

If you see a lump, show no mercy. Here is your chance to release a those residual homicidal fantasies from the when you pushed over that school kid on the bus on Thursday. Lumps are exactly like children. Don’t ask me why. Okay, they’re like children because you shouldn’t have them and they’ll ruin everything, how’s that? Grip your masher like Popeye at a wanking contest, and keep pounding. You’ll know you’re done when your your knuckles are white, and the cupboard doors are covered in white spittle. Congrats. Now take a swig straight from the bottle.

That wasn’t so bad was it? Let’s take a little rest while everything cools. What’s that? You’ve still got a bottle of Xanex in the bathroom cabinet next to the floss? Sure you do.

The Sauce. No Comment.

Light up a smoke and start chopping onions. We’re going to make the sauce, or the ‘source’ as I like to call it, as it’s the never-ending source of questions and controversy. Everything always starts with the sauce. First it’s, “How much salt did you put in?”, then it’s straight onto, “How could you not see that Fiona was screwing your bank manager behind your back, you piece of shit?” and “Have you paid back all that money you owe cousin Georgina?”, then back to “Next time, I think you should use more bacon fat.” These are the moments, as you’re pressing down on the trampoline skin of supermarket tomatoes with a blunt knife, when you get the opportunity to reflect on the perennial question of why you fucking bother at all. If, at the end, after you’ve been brain raped  (figuratively speaking for all the neurologists out there with no sense of humour) by the woman with whom you shared a bathroom for eight years, A.K.A the chocolate cum bucket (and I mean this as a term of endearment) whose arse pimples you knew more intimately than the Saturday morning form guide, you continue to go to work and pay the electricity bills and buy deodorant and all the other little tasks that sustain your misery, then good for you! You’re doing alright. If each of those tomatoes represented one of your problems, it would be okay: you could crush them under the weight of your fist and forget about doing what society tells you to do. Sadly, there are not enough vines in Italy to support the bulging bunch of our acidic sorrows.

Oh fuck it. This part you can do on your own. Autopilot: onions, garlic, salt, olive oil, pepper, bacon rind (tell your sister, who’s says she’s a pescatarian, which is like a but-plugg-loving virgin, that you used vegetable stock or she might throw her plate on the floor, and we all know that carpet cleaning ain’t cheap), a depressing amount of diced tomatoes, basil oregano, and a shitload of red wine. What’s that? You want more exact quantities? Sure. Here are two tablespoons of ‘fuck you’.

Now you’re going to need some plain flour, as processed and as bleached as the hairs on your mamma’s upper lip. That’s the only stuff I’ll use these days, that and white sugar. Apart from the booze and ciggies, they’re the only products that have been scientifically proven to pave your way to that hole in the ground. That is, of course, if they bother to dig you a hole. Knowing my family they’ve probably already sold my lot to a failed racing horse. Mix the flour into the mashed potato until it’s no longer sticky. What’s that? How do you tell if it’s not sticky? Do I have to fucking spell everything out? Stick your dick in it for all I care, see if it comes out clean. Grab a handful of flour and throw it on the bench, then roll and knead, roll and knead. It’s thirsty work. Roll until that dough looks and feels like pair of tits in talcum powder. Did I just say tits? Sorry, I think I’m drunk. If you accidently ash into the dough like I did, pick it out and save it for the batch you’re going to serve your sister, along with the special  concoction of urine-based tomato sauce you’re going to prepare later. Hold that piss.

When Nonna was alive she used to sit on the porch on hot days and feed pinches of uncooked gnocchi dough to the magpies. Those black and white bastards loved that shit and would swarm down from the trees, snapping their death beaks at the ground. She  knew they scared the hell out of me, so on the days when my mother dumped me with her (they were many) she’d the toss dough a little further away, and stamped an arthritic foot if they came hopping up the steps. “Don’t let the devil stare at you,” she said to me, speaking about the birds’ beady, demonic eyes. “You gotta look away, before he catches your eyes. Throw a piece of gnocchi at him, stupid birds. You stare at him too long and he’ll put a spell on you and you’ll turn out like your Uncle Tony.” You tell a five year old something and it’ll stick with them for the rest of their lives. Thanks to Nonna I’m still afraid of magpies. At school, I swatted one with a tennis racket and tore off its beak after I thought it was going to attack me and turn me into Uncle Tony. It was only much later, when I learned that Uncle Tony was thrown in prison for trying to enter the country with a fist-sized bag of heroin up his arse, that I had any respect for him.

Look, they’re going to heap crap on you for doing this, especially your sister, but you just have to… in the name of preparation. We’re going to split the dough into equal parts and roll them out into little snakes. “Oh, why couldn’t you wait, you dipshit? You know Stefano loves rolling gnocchi, making the little snakes, then chopping them up,” your retard sister’s going to say. This is coming from the woman who used to fart on my pillow before I went to bed, and then boast to mum about it. Stefano may be my nephew, but seriously, the kid’s a walking cat fight. Put him in a room and he’ll find a way to destroy it. The last time I let him into the kitchen he nearly severed his ear with a piece of dental floss. Ma and Bianca ripped my arse open for that one, and then patted his head and kissed his ear as if he was God’s little ejaculation instead of a child maniac.

2007 merlot? Get out that case you got from Fiona’s parents. Like me, you were probably saving it for a special occasion, waiting pathetically for the day when things started to go your way. The good news is that nothing is looking up, so keep that corkscrew in standby mode. You want to roll that dough into lengths no thicker than your finger. I’m assuming your finger is as fat as mine. If not, go to the mirror and say ‘arsehole’— the rolls should be the size of your mouth as you say ‘hole’. While you’re in the bathroom, check for skid marks in the toilet. If you’ve been drinking Guinness the night before, you might have to scratch off  that bit of butt graffiti with your fingernails.

By now your sauce should be bubbling away nicely, spattering the white wall she made you paint a week before she moved out. Give it a stir. You’ll probably need to add more wine… to your glass. Ha! That was a joke. Drink from the fucking bottle if you like, see if I care. How does it taste? Like a post-coital massage on a lazy summer afternoon? Or what about a surprise dinner down at the wharf at her favourite restaurant? Or maybe like a bank manager’s broken nose? All are three are fine. Put a lid on that shit and burn it real low while you’re chopping up your snakes into thumb-size pellets. Throw a handful of semolina on the bench while you’re at it to keep it real. Roll a fork over the top of those pellets, four grooves to give it texture. Sauce loves something to hold onto at night, while it’s sobbing into a wet towel.

Once she was so in love with you that she threatened to chop your dick off if you looked at even the reflection of another woman. Here’s the knife she held when she said it. Look. She held it like this, with one her of long fingers resting on the back of the knife as she pointed the tip of the blade at your crotch. You laughed like an idiot, but for the rest of the day you actually tried to stick to the demand. You made a point of leaving your sunglasses at home, and keeping your head straight down every street. Did you make her promise the same? Of course you didn’t. Would it have made a difference? Not one fairy’s fucking thimble. Ma said that I should have married her, as if it would have made a difference.  I wonder what Nonna would have thought of it all. Sometimes I think she was the only one who used to give a crap about anything.

Putting it all Together, Happy, Smiley and Shit.

Have you got a pot of water boiling yet? I have. You gotta be always one step ahead today, have the latest toy, app, or best-seller, if you want play with those moustached schoolboys, who exited the womb performing cunninlingins on their laptops. I know, let’s pretend each ball of gnocchi is a pale-faced hipster who’s about to steal your job. He’s fresh from a latte enema and we’re going boil him until his skin melts and his carcass floats to the top of the water. Now’s the perfect time for a shot of vodka by the way. There’s nothing better than simulated murder and real liquor. I don’t know who said that, probably some mean bastard in a gangster movie, and not one of those sub-literate ‘gangstas’, whose only talent is to denigrate women and who believe that pants should be worn around your thighs instead of your waist. I mean the real guys, the strategising, no-nonsense, honour-killing crew, who chew on toothpicks while mowing down their enemies during christenings and weddings.

Anyway, as soon as your dead hipsters are floating in their watery graves, fish them out and make a layer of them in a baking dish. Bury them in sauce, making sure to cover every square millimetre, because your wine may be dry, but heaven help you if your gnocchi are. Finish it off with your cheese of choice— I’m really telling you to use buffalo mozzarella and parmesan here, but I’ve stopped caring. Sprinkle frozen dog turd on it. See if it grates me.

Then it’s twenty-five minutes in a medium oven, and you’re ready to serve this cosmos of culinary genius to undeserving relatives who’ve never hidden the fact that they detest every atom that was ever you.

Wait… hear that? The knock at door? The scuffle of feet on the welcoming mat? I should have the thing reprinted to say, ‘you’re not welcome’ or ‘please roll around in petrol and ignite yourself’. But who could be bothered? I’ll just do what I always do: show them in and let them trample all over my carpet and life.

I disgust myself to the spine.

Enjoy the gnocchi. Share it with those you love.

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Illustrated Shorts

I'm a creative writer and illustrator living wherever I can afford.