A memoir of pasta making with Nana
Written by Jacey Hammond
I didn’t know my nana (my great-grandmother) for long. I was very young when she passed away but my family loves to reminisce about Sunday nights spent around her large wooden table. So in a way, I feel as though I’ve always known her.
My nana came to America from Italy when she was just three years old. As an immigrant she grew up picking vegetables with her family and later married my great-grandfather who owned a vegetable farm. The hours spent on the land inspired a life-long love for food and cooking.
My mom lived with my nana while she was in college and told me that one of her best memories from this time was hand rolling gnocchi with her. She would pay close attention to Nana’s hands so she could mimic them in order to make the dough as perfect as she did.
She described how Nana would construct a well of flour and add ricotta cheese to the middle. Using her tiny, strong hands, she would whisk until a firm dough formed. She’d separate it into four sections and roll the dough into snake-like tubes.
She and my mother would cut the tube of dough into bite-size pieces resembling miniature pillows. They used a fork to make a perfect indent into each gnocchi, or if they were feeling lazy, Nana would use her finger instead.
As a child, whenever I heard water sizzling in a pot and the fan blasting in the kitchen, I knew it was time for pasta. My mouth would water as my mom brought over her giant serving bowl of hot gnocchi. I’d gawk at the steam billowing from the pile of pasta and take in the aromas of butter and Parmigiano.
When I was about 12, I took my first crack at making Nana’s gnocchi. My first experience cooking pasta from scratch was not as glorious as I thought it would be. I was bored. Kneading hurt my hands. It took forever. I just kept wondering ‘Why can’t we make cookies instead?’
When I got older I spent a semester in Florence, Italy. When I came back, I wanted to compare Nana’s gnocchi to the copious amounts of fresh pasta I had eaten abroad. I begged my mom to let me help her make some, but when we made the recipe this time, the newfound foodie in me couldn’t believe what we were actually doing.
I found out that Nana’s pasta is most certainly not gnocchi. The pasta is shaped like gnocchi, but it’s made with ricotta instead of potatoes. It was cavatelli we were making all along. I wondered, how could my Italian mother mix these varieties up? When I asked my her about it, she simply told me “Nana always called them gnocchis.”
So that was that.
That first time making pasta after my semester abroad was a disaster. We used semolina flour – the typical flour used for pasta making – but it ended up tasting rubbery. We tried a second time, this time mixing semolina and all-purpose flour. This method proved superior and it tasted like the dish I knew and loved growing up.
Salted to perfection, I loved the feeling of the chewy dough swimming alongside marinara sauce in my mouth. The cheese inside the dough allows the pasta to remain moist and flavorful. You could eat Nana’s gnocchi plain, without sauce, and still leave the dinner table feeling satisfied.
When I eat Nana’s gnocchi I can imagine her and my mom laughing together and doing the dishes; while my aunts and uncle argue in the background. With every bite, I visualize my family yelling and cackling around the 14-person table in her kitchen. Sharing nana’s gnocchi with my sisters and cousins makes me think of how the generation before us shared it, how we share it, and how we will share it in the future.
My mother and I still use the same custom-made pasta board my nana used for many years. When I was younger I would groan at the sight of my mother at the board singing oldies and covered in flour in the kitchen. But now, every time she breaks out that old board, I get butterflies in my stomach. Knowing that my mother’s hands and my nana’s worked together on the same pasta recipe for so many years gives me a connection to my heritage. Nana made food feel like home for my mother and her siblings, and somehow, she’s managed to do it again for me.
Jacey Hammond is a junior journalism major at Ithaca College and this semester’s editorial intern at Edible Finger Lakes. This Jersey girl loves to write, sing, bake, cook and explore the food scene in the FLX. Originally published in February 2020.