Whole Lotta Love
Greg Goldfogel, owner of Ristorante Amore, was on the phone, and we were talking about gnocchi. We were talking a lot about 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.
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).
That scaloppini was a wonder -- a throwaway plate anywhere else, menu filler for the benefit of those who don't eat fish, aren't interested in a fan of tender sliced duck breast with cherry brandy sauce (like Smilanic-Beneventi's petto di anatra over mashed sweet potatoes) and can't pronounce salcicce arrabbiata, much less know that the dish consists of hot Italian sausage and red bells over penne with red sauce. The veteran chef had lavished on the scaloppini all of the attention usually reserved for a showpiece main, turning out two lovely, brown, herbed breasts that came puddled with a butter-mounted lemon-caper sauce easy on the garlic, sweetened with sundried tomatoes and pulled back just enough that it merely accented the mushrooms, chicken, pancetta and quartered artichoke hearts that alone were enough to prove the competence of Amore's kitchen beyond any doubt.
The artichokes were just one of ten ingredients in the scaloppini, but they mattered. It sometimes seems like every menu in this city offers a clunky bowl of pasta all chunked-up with artichoke hearts because -- let's be honest -- artichoke hearts sound sexy but can still be gotten cheap by the 10-can from all the major restaurant suppliers. But most of those kitchens, and most of the cooks in those kitchens, haven't a fucking clue what to do with an artichoke once they get their grubby hands on one, so they just toss a quartered heart in with some pasta, ladle on the sauce, flip it a couple times, and voilà! A bowl of pasta with what tastes like a boiled, quartered pinecone in it.
Improperly done 'choke hearts are woody, tough, stringy, leafy on the outside and textured like a mealy apple within. In short, they're awful. And any cooks caught abusing the noble artichoke in such a fashion ought to be busted down to the fryer station as punishment.
But Smilanic-Beneventi and his sous, Matt Anderson, understand how to cook an artichoke. And as a result, my scaloppini included a handful of nutty heart quarters that, having been given enough time to soften and swim around in the sauce, seemed to melt away almost before I could chew them.
I know that a critic -- even a rather unconventional one who'll waste a thousand words on gnocchi stories without compunction -- is never supposed to judge a restaurant on a single dish, a single bite, a single bit of artichoke heart speared on the end of a fork. I know that, but I also know that I've eaten a lot of bad artichokes in my time and hidden a lot more of them in my napkin when I thought the maître d' wasn't looking -- so when I find a kitchen like Amore doing right by artichokes, it means something. I could've walked out then, confident that anyone who could make the most basic dish on the menu sing the way this scaloppini did was more than qualified to bang out a couple dozen costolette di maiale (grilled pork chops over risotto cakes in a fontina cream sauce) and bowls of fresh, saffron-heavy cioppino every night.
But had I left, I would've missed out on the simple pleasure of a spinach salad with dried cherries and chive crème fraîche; the more complicated plating of a carpaccio of beef served with olives, onions, capers, oil and a rosemary-balsamic reduction, all topped with shaved grana; and a vegetarian lasagna made with sherry-marinated mushrooms and more artichokes layered between sheets of pasta stuffed with good ricotta and shaved parmesan. As a dedicated carnivore proud of my place at the top of the food chain, I rarely order anything that has the V-word attached to it, and almost never enjoy it. But this lasagna was so good I ordered it again on a second visit, forsaking a taste of the baby cow featured in the piccata di vitello in favor of another round of mushrooms and artichokes.
Small pleasures abound when you're dining at Goldfogel's twelve-table Cherry Creek treasure (which is expanding into the space next door and will soon be Goldfogel's twenty-table Cherry Creek treasure, thereby relieving some of the overcrowding he's experienced during dinner services that are often made up of 80 percent regulars and 20 percent soon-to-become-regulars). There's the herbed port-wine cream cheese served free with the table bread, which I would eat with a spoon if I didn't think people would stare. There are the people themselves -- friendly neighborhood crowds actually from the neighborhood. There's the excellent service, polite without being coddling and just familiar enough to make the place seem cozy rather than cramped. And there's Goldfogel -- shaking hands, greeting customers at the door, and generally behaving as if he's been in the business his whole life, not just the last fourteen months.
Finally, had I called it a day after my first bite of artichoke heart, I would never have tried the gnocchi principessa that Goldfogel is so proud of, never have tasted what Roma-Mexican Ernesto left behind when he bailed for more temperate climes. Served either in a muscular, nearly overpowering Gorgonzola cream sauce with toasted walnuts and a shredded prosciutto crown, or plain in a simple marinara sauce, these dumplings were neither the stiff gumballs full of shelf-stabilizers and artificial preservatives served off the back of the Sysco truck nor the gooey potato muck served by those houses that would be better off sticking with Sysco than trying to make gnocchi themselves. Fresh from Amore's kitchen -- where, owing to the short table count, batches are made only twice, sometimes three times a week -- these gnocchi were soft, pillowy, almost silky in texture, and lighter than anything that's 99 percent starch has any business being. They tasted like cream-thinned mashed potatoes inflated with helium.
They were nothing like the gnocchi I once made, certainly nothing like my Killarney dumplings of old, and so dreamy that I'd finished a whole plate before I noticed I was eating them, then used hunks of table bread to sponge up the sauce.
"So how's this," I told Goldfogel on the phone. "When I do get there, I'll give you a call the next day and tell you what I thought, okay?"
He agreed, and that was that. We hung up, and, hungry now, I went for the leftovers in the fridge. I had a little scaloppini stashed there, a tiny sliver of lasagna. And I certainly wasn't going to let them go to waste.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.