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Gnocchi alla Romana

Fried Cream Wheat from the Ancient Romans

Accipies similam, coques in aqua calida ita ut durrissimam pultem facias, deinde in patellam expandis.  Cum refrizerit, concidis quasi culdia et frigis in oleo optimo.  Levas, perfundis mel, piper aspergis et inferes.  Melius feceris, si lac pro aqua miseris. 

Take flour [semolina], cook in hot water so that it becomes a very firm polenta, then spread it on a plate.  When it has cooled, cut it as for sweet cakes and fry in oil of the finest qualty.  Remove, pour honey over, sprinkle with pepper, and serve.  You will do even better if you use milk instead of water. 

The De re coquinaria of Apicius

as found in A Taste of Ancient Rome, by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, Translated by Anna Herkolotz

You probably haven’t read Latin in a while, so I included the English translation.

What you have here is “polenta” made with semolina and fried.  How intriguing that it’s covered with a combination of honey and pepper. Today we think of polenta as cornmeal mush.  But before corn reached Europe from the Americas, polenta was a sort of porridge that could be made with various grains or even chestnut.  This comes from the De re Coquinaria, attributed to a gourmand named Apicius who lived in ancient Rome during the first century A.D. (though he alone did not solely write it).  When you read through the recipes for cabbage and vinegar sauces, porridges and roasted pigeons, so much seems to be missing that would seem to be “Italian” food: No tomatoes, potatoes, hot peppers, corn, and even pasta as we know it.  This is because what we know today as “Mediterranean cuisine” is very much rooted in the Middle Ages, not the Romans.

Which gets you thinking about the endlessly deep story of Italy and its food and language--ever changing and so deep.  All these ruminations because I had such a wonderful time last night with a large group of Italians and Italian Americans in Princeton.  I was there to do a talk about Genoese food and my ravioli memoir at a culture center called Dorothea’s House.  This is a very special place with a huge following.  Check it out if you live anywhere close. 

It’s very strange how writing is such a solitary experience and requires years of loneliness, yet because of the world we live in, the book is published, and a writer must become a public person.  Sometimes it is very difficult (and at times terribly embarrassing).  Other times you can’t believe how lucky you are to meet such wonderful people.  Last night was one of those wonderful times and I’m sure it was the warmth of the people, who share long bonds to Italian history and culture.

There was a reception and pot luck following, where I even tasted some pesto that made me feel as though i was in Genoa.  But the dish that left a huge impression was Gnocchi alla Romana..  I’d never had it before.  It was little cookie sized circles of polenta baked to crisp brown in layers on a dish.


Now, this is a simple dish mind you.  A warm starchy comfort food.  Yet it was a revelation.  I cannot explain how wonderful it tasted to me and how I immediately wanted to make it my own.  Of course emotions always color our taste buds.  So perhaps it was the night.  But I don’t think so.  I’m pretty sure it was the dish, which did not at all seem like “gnocchi.” But that’s Italy for you.  The same word can mean one thing in one region and something completely different in another.  You’ll never figure it all out. 

I consulted with my hero Marcella Hazan who gives a recipe for basically the same thing, which she calls “Baked Semolina Gnocchi” in her Classic Italian Cookbook, explaining that the dish can be traced back to Ancient Rome, where it was fried and covered with honey.  Which is why I turned all geeky this morning, hunting through Apicius , as though I don’t have articles due and a family to care for and many other deadlines. Semolina is a universe.  But we wont go there now. 

Luckily I met a woman named Linda at the event last night who is a dear friend of the cook responsible for slaying me and the whole recipe is already posted on her fabulous blog Ciaochowlinda.com, which all Italian food enthusiasts would want to know. And so I send you into her good hands. Notice the cool layering technique and how it all bakes together.  Let me know if you make this dish and if you agree that it is a brilliant piece of simplicity. 

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