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Greg Goldfogel, owner of Ristorante Amore, was on the phone, and we were talking about gnocchi. We were talking a lotabout gnocchi, which might surprise someone not steeped to the neck in the lore and weird obsessions of the kitchen. Because, really, how much is there to say about potato dumplings?
"It's important, you know?" Goldfogel said. "This is gnocchi. This is a big deal to me."
And to me, too, which was why we'd been on the subject so long, talking about making the dough, kneading the dough. We'd discussed how you boil gnocchi (gently) and how you know when they're done (cold gnocchi, straight out of the cooler, will sink in the pasta water, then bob back up to the surface the instant they're finished and float there like pasty-white stewed thumbs). He'd told me how a certain local food personality who didn't like Amore's recipe for gnocchi kept trying to get him to use hers, and how, thus far, he'd resisted, even though he had some customers who felt the same way. And I'd told him about working at Romeo's back in New York, where I -- in one of the many blots in my spotty career in the kitchens -- had taken a prep/commis gig far below my qualifications simply because of the peace it offered me. I was entirely in charge of exactly two things: pounding, washing and breading filets of chicken, veal and pork for the cockeyed scaloppinis my chef insisted on doing wrongly every night; and making the gnocchi from start to finish, dough to plate.
Spinach salad: $8< br>Caprese salad: $9
Scaloppini di pollo: $18
Veggie lasagna: $15
Romeo's gnocchi were insanely popular (hence the brigadier necessity of having me on the payroll in the first place, drawing a check for doing only two things all day, every day). We sold them by the thousands, and every single one that went into the bottomless maw of the dining public for the few months I had the job came from my hands. I loved working that dough. I loved the sound of the bench scraper rasping against the cold stone block and the feel of the fork pulling at the skin of each dumpling when the dough was just right. There was a workmanlike calm to it, an undeniable sense of accomplishment in seeing six plastic fish tubs full of little dumplings lined up at the start of service, sandbagging my station and just waiting for the first fire orders of the night: "Sheehan, gnocchi cream on two, gnocchi red on six, gnocchi cream all alone. Nine gnocchi all day, fly one."
"Nine all day. Thank you, chef."
I hadn't told Goldfogel about the place in Buffalo where making gnocchi was the duty of whoever on the line was the most hung over because it was one of the few things on the prep list that didn't require handling a knife (it's tough to hurt yourself with nothing but fifty pounds of mushy potato starch). Or about the Irish pub in Florida that, owing to the idiocy of the deadbeat owner and his belief that anything with a potato in it could be classified as mick cuisine, offered gnocchi prepared daily by the coked-up Cuban baker who would hoover up a toot of Bolivian marching powder, then forget which dough was which, leaving me on the line with dozens of orders of gnocchi made from Irish soda-bread dough that I'd then serve, calling them "Killarney dumplings" and asking $14.95 a plate for them.
Goldfogel got his gnocchi recipe from a former server. "It's a funny story," he told me. "We had this guy, Ernesto, who claimed to be from Rome, but I don't know. That's what he said, anyway. But it was his recipe, and he taught the chef, because before this, we weren't really happy with the consistency of the product. The funny part is, he disappeared not long after. People said that he's in Mexico or something. But anyway, we kept the recipe."
Which just goes to show that there's no business as usual in the restaurant business. There's always some dubious Italian named Ernesto involved, always someone mysteriously running off to Mexico. More often than not, recipes are the only record of the people who have come and gone.
Goldfogel, who left the world of management training and entered the restaurant scene with the opening of Amore in November 2003, is just starting to learn that. "I know you haven't been in yet, but you've gotta come in and try these gnocchi," he insisted. "You've gotta tell me what you think."
I'd already tried the gnocchi, but I didn't tell him that. I said I was very busy, that the job kept me jumping -- what with all the new places opening and chefs wandering hither and yon -- and that I'd try to come in, but no promises. And all the while, I was thinking of the leftovers in my fridge from the meal I'd had at Amore just two nights before. I was thinking about the gnocchi (of which there had been nothing left over, not even a dot of sauce), and the tomatoes marinated in balsamic vinegar on the Caprese salad, and the perfect, salty little bits and slivers of seared pancetta that spiked the simple sauce on the scaloppini di pollo that Goldfogel's guy, John Smilanic-Beneventi, did right (unlike my chef at Romeo's).