Once a Month, Gnoc­chi Rule the Pam­pas

The Washington Post Sunday - - Travel - — Daniel Shumski

In

Buenos Aires, the beef can be a scene-stealer. But on the 29th of the month, the pil­lowy dumplings known as gnoc­chi have their day.

In the early 20th cen­tury, Ital­ian im­mi­grants poured into this city and left a last­ing mark. Part of that her­itage comes through in the lan­guage, with the Ital­ian-flecked lo­cal di­alect of Span­ish known as lun­fardo. But you don’t have to speak a word of Span­ish to ap­pre­ci­ate an­other last­ing legacy of Ital­ian im­mi­gra­tion: the food. At just about any restau­rant, pizza and pasta dishes com­pete for menu space with beef cuts from nose to tail.

But only one Ital­ian dish has a day each month set aside for it. The cus­tom of eat­ing gnoc­chi on the 29th is said to spring from a cel­e­bra­tion of sim­ple food and mea­ger means: It’s the end of the month, the money has run out, and all that is left in the pantry is some pota­toes, some flour and, if you’re lucky, an egg or two. What else to make but gnoc­chi?

While usu­ally lumped to­gether with pasta, gnoc­chi are re­ally lit­tle dumplings, of­ten made from potato, but they’re also seen in semolina, ri­cotta and other ver­sions. The 29th cel­e­brates all th­ese in­car­na­tions, al­though the stan­dard-bearer is the ño­qui de papa, or potato gnoc­chi.

On this day, restau­rants of­fer gnoc­chi specials, and lines form at the city’s abun­dant fresh pasta shops. Tra­di­tion dic­tates that you eat the gnoc­chi with money un­der your plate to en­sure good luck and pros­per­ity.

If you fancy cook­ing for your­self, you can be am­bi­tious and make them from scratch. But there is no shame in join­ing the crowds at a fresh pasta shop.

One re­li­able choice is La Ju­ve­nil, which has been around for nearly half a cen­tury and has about a dozen lo­ca­tions in the city. They usu­ally of­fer the stan­dard potato gnoc­chi as well as two other ver­sions: ri­cotta and spinach. On the 29th, how­ever, the se­lec­tion grows to in­clude squash, veg­etable, tri­color and moz­zarella-filled gnoc­chi. About $3 buys you a kilo, enough to feed three or four peo­ple. La Ju­ve­nil also sells more than a dozen sauces, in­clud­ing a rich four-cheese pancetta sauce and a white sauce with a touch of nut­meg.

It’s worth seek­ing out in­de­pen­dent pasta shops, too. Sal­gado Ali­men­tos (Ramirez de Ve­lazco 401) is a for­mer fresh pasta shop turned restau­rant where the gnoc­chi come stud­ded with beau­ti­ful lit­tle knobs that latch onto the sauce. If you eat in the invit­ing, sky-blue din­ing room, you can get a plate of pre­pared gnoc­chi for about $3. If you’re buy­ing gnoc­chi to cook at home, you can get half a kilo for a lit­tle more than a dol­lar. A quar­ter-liter of any one of six sauces to go sets you back the same amount.

If you don’t feel like cook­ing your own gnoc­chi, make your way to La Boca. In this neigh­bor­hood, not far from the color­ful old port area of Caminito, is Il Mat­terello (Martin Ro­driguez 517), whose pas­tas stand out even in a city of full of hand­made pasta. The word is out about this restau­rant, but it still feels down-to-earth and in­ti­mate. Here, they are gnoc­chi-servers of princi- ple. The menu is full of ex­cel­lent pasta to en­joy any day of the month, but they only serve gnoc­chi on the 29th. At about $10, a plate of gnoc­chi with salsa filetto (tomato sauce) is the per­fect mar­riage. While safety con­cerns should not stop you from visit­ing, the area can be a lit­tle dodgy. Skip the af­ter-din­ner stroll and let the restau­rant call you a cab.

Want ex­cel­lent gnoc­chi but can’t wait un­til the 29th? Try­ing to twist arms at Il Mat­terello prob­a­bly won’t get you any­where, so head to the Abasto neigh­bor­hood. A few blocks from an im­pos­ing re­stored mar­ket­turned-shop­ping mall, you’ll find Pierino (Lavalle 3499). A plate here sets you back about $10. With the brick walls, the pots and pans hang­ing from the ceil­ing and the old-time soda-wa­ter bot­tles that you get if you or­der agua con gas, it would all feel like over-the-top nos­tal­gia if it weren’t so gen­uine.

Of course, gnoc­chi de­mand a sauce. Here the tra­di­tion ad­mits some flex­i­bil­ity. In sum­mer, a ver­dant fresh-basil pesto is per­fect. In cooler weather, a rich cream sauce feels right. If you’re stuck be­tween two sauces, ask if the restau­rant will pre­pare a plate for you with some of each. Af­ter all, you don’t want to settle. Gnoc­chi day comes only once a month.

Sal­gado Ali­men­tos is a for­mer fresh pasta shop turned restau­rant.

In the din­ing room, you can get a plate of gnoc­chi for about $3. For home cook­ing, you can get half a kilo for a lit­tle more than a dol­lar.

PHO­TOS BY PETER SCHULLER

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