Salgado Alimentos is a former fresh pasta shop turned restaurant.
Salgado Alimentos is a former fresh pasta shop turned restaurant.
Peter Schuller
SMART MOUTH

Once a Month, Gnocchi Rule the Pampas

Salgado Alimentos is a former fresh pasta shop turned restaurant.
Salgado Alimentos is a former fresh pasta shop turned restaurant. (Peter Schuller)
Sunday, April 29, 2007

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 principle. 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 market-turned-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.

-- Daniel Shumski

For general information on travel to Buenos Aires, check the city's tourism Web site (http://www.bue.gov.ar/home).


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