Gnocchi – The Holy Grail

Growing up, without a doubt our favorite family meal was gnocchi.  Being one of 8 kids (plus 2 parents and a grandparent), making gnocchi was a monumental task reserved for special occasions.  My father would have to ration out portions to the kids; there were not enough gnocchi in the world to satisfy us. To this day it is still one of my favorites.  I cautiously order at restaurants because of frequent disappointment – My Nonna set the bar high.  Making it today is still an all-day affair, so it is still mostly a special occasion dish.

Going to Italy meant I was going to eat gnocchi.  In fact, upon making the reservations for our last-minute trip, I’m pretty sure at one point I thought, “I am going to eat gnocchi every day.”  My son related similar sentiments as we planned our trip.  Our plane landed in Venice at 9:30am. If we got right on the road we could be in Frisanco by noon and have gnocchi for lunch.  Frisanco was my Grandmother’s mountain destination for her summer retreat. It’s an hour hike from her home town of Fanna, a small village in Friuli at the base of Mt. Raut in the Alps. In my Grandmother’s time, Fanna was a small, poor village.  Frisanco provided a cool retreat during the hot summer months in a time when travelling was a luxury.

Fanna as seen from Frisanco

Frisanco – nestled in the mountains


Cooling off at a fountain in Frisanco

A few years back my brother Angelo discovered the Albergo Alle Alpi (hotel) in Frisanco.  While the hotel accommodations are adequate, the gnocchi is exceptional – exactly like my Grandmother’s.   Each time we stay, the owners always remember us from a particular visit from my bother Dave. For his first plate he ordered gnocchi al ragu (with meat sauce).  For his second plate again he ordered gnocchi al ragu.  For his dessert – you guessed it – a third plate of gnocchi al ragu.  This is what happens when Dad isn’t around to ration.

So our flight lands on time – bags are off the conveyor, my brother scores a great parking spot – we are on the road.  Two hours and counting until a gnocchi lunch in Frisanco.  After a brief stop in Sequals for an espresso, we arrive in Frisanco at noon right on schedule.


My son in front of our hotel in Frisanco – Albergo Alle Alpi

The dining room is filled with patrons – travelers, locals, families, even contractors on their lunch break (gnocchi on a work lunch break – can you imagine??).  At noon the handmade gnocchi at Alle Alpi starts rolling off the human assembly line and the people gather.   Gnocchi Pomodoro, Gnocchi  al Ragu, or Gnocchi with smoked ricotta cheese sauce?  Life’s difficult decisions.


Gnocchi with smoked ricotta cheese sauce

Gnocchi al Ragu

Gnocchi Pomodoro

Of course, the Alle Alpi serves more than just gnocchi, but we never get past that part of the menu.  Gnocchi al Ragu is my choice.  The Gnocchi is perfect.  For a moment I am a kid again, at home on my birthday, and I am as happy as can be.  Only one plate of gnocchi this lunch, after all, dinner is only 7 hours from now.

Along the way, the village of Sequals made for an interesting stop.  Sequals is over the next hill from Fanna, and the home of 1930’s boxing heavyweight champ Primo Carnera.  Carnera’s family still lives in Sequals where the boxer is a legend.  It seemed like everyone had a story about him.  We were invited in to his family’s restaurant for an espresso and some Primo Carnera stories.  That was followed by a café correcto (espresso with grappa) and more stories – this could on all day.  The only thing that stopped us was our mission for lunch was just a few miles up the road.

Our gnocchi fix sufficiently satisfied and behind us we were ready to continue our journey.

My Grandmothers gnocchi recipe can be found on Philadelphia Catering’s Chef’s Corner

COMING NEXT: A failed hike attempt and more cuisine of my family’s heritage in Fanna and surrounding villages


Primo Carnera’s Family’s Restaurant

Primo Carnera’s Family’s Restaurant

Paying tribute to Primo Carnera

Paying tribute to Primo Carnera



Coming Soon – Tales From A Culinary Adventure In Friuli, Italy

I just returned from a last minute, spontaneous 10 day trip to Northern Italy.  My son, A.J.(Angelo) and I met up with my brother Angelo, his daughter Anna, and nephew Patrick to tour through Friuli, Trentino-Alto Adige, and a touch of Austria.

Northern Italy

Our plan was to first visit family in the town my grandparents came from, Fanna, in Friuli.  We explored our culinary roots through family meals and by tasting the local dishes and wines in Fanna and the neighboring towns.  Next we headed North in Friuli to a little village near the Austrian border called Timau, which is in the Carnic Alps.  Here we visited the mountaintop WWI battlefields of my Grandfather, called Freikofel & Pal Piccolo.

The summit of Freikofel

We spent three days at the amazing Albergo Matiz D’Otto with award winning chef Stefano Buttazzoni, tasting the unique local cuisine and incredibly flavored grappas made by our host and owner Diego Matiz.  Among the highlights were the cjarsons – a ravioli-like pasta filled with a combination of potato, figs, cinnamon, herbs and more for a complex salty-sweet dish that can only be found in this remote area.

The last leg of our trip took us briefly into Austria through the Alps to the village of Canazai in Val di Fasso set in the beautiful Dolomite Mountains.  Our plans to hike in the highest parts of the Dolomites were dashed due to a summer snow storm and lingering snow from the winter.  This of course just meant searching for more polenta, Frico and Friuli wines– not a bad alternative.  We were able to do a nice hike that brought us to an altitude of 2243 meters and what was probably the best meal on our entire trip at a mountain top hotel and restaurant called Rifugio Vajolet.  The exceptional polenta dishes were rustic and served fresh out of the pot.


Rifugio Vajolet

Last we spent a day in the beautiful city of Venice.  More details to come over the next few posts.  I will try to share the interesting culinary experiences we had, as well as some of the incredible places we visited, great people we met, and some of the ways the Italians live a more sustainable lifestyle.

Hot afternoon in Venice with the popular Venetian drink call Furlan

Hot afternoon in Venice with the popular Venetian drink call Furlan.