As much as I loved to cook, I truly enjoyed a dinner out that my late husband James and I occasionally indulged in. We mostly avoided chain restaurants, but we always kept our eyes open for small family-run restaurants, diners, and eateries to try.
Shopping and leisurely trips to the Lakes Region took us through Franklin, New Hampshire, a small hamlet about 30 minutes drive from where we lived. The main street of the town boasted only a handful of traffic signals. For some reason it seemed that fate had determined that we would have to stop at a particular signal every trip through town whether going one direction or the other.
When a passenger, it was my habit to gaze at surrounding buildings and take in architectural details or check out displays in shop windows. On one corner of that particular intersection sat a two-story building that hosted the local VFW. Next to it, so close in distance and appearance that it was easily mistaken to be part of the VFW building, sat a one-story structure with just a few parking spots in front.
I’d looked at the buildings many times, often reading the sign on the VFW announcing the offerings from the kitchen for the weekend. As I turned my head, my eyes caught sight of a banner hanging on the one-story building announcing the opening of a new restaurant, Ciao Pasta. Mentioning this to James, he said we should try it sometime.
One afternoon, headed for home after a shopping trip, James announced that he was hungry. This proclamation coincided with the obligatory stop at that one particular traffic light we always hit red on. As we slowed, I said, “Well, i think they just opened for dinner, do you want to try Ciao Pasta? We’re already here.” “Sure”, he said, “I’m game. I can always eat pasta.”
The restaurant was cozy and intimate with a small center bar hugged by booths and some tables on its sides. The atmosphere was relaxing, the aromas coming from the kitchen enticing. A waitress appeared, menus in hand. As she greeted us, she mentioned there were daily specials posted on the menu boards on the walls.
The printed menu featured, among some other offerings, a wide variety of pastas both dried and house-made fresh along with several types of house-made sauces. The idea was to pick a pasta and pick a sauce. “Hon,” James whispered, “It’s Build-a-Pasta!” (We affectionately referred to the restaurant as that from then on.)
As I perused the menu, i said, “Didn’t the waitress mention specials? Where are they?” James looked up and said, “Right there.” Hanging above my head, on the wall directly behind me, was one of the menu boards. “Close your menu, hon,” James said to me. ‘You don’t have to look any further. I know exactly what you want and it suits you to a ‘T'”.
At that moment, the waitress arrived to take our order. “My wife will have the Mediterranean gnocchi”, said James before I could even draw a breath. “I’ll have the tortellini with vodka sauce.” As she departed, I started to turn in my seat to see if the menu board described the dish. James reached out, gently squeezed my wrist, shook his head “no”, and said, “Trust me.” He was right. When my plate arrived, it did suit me to a “T”.
Steaming soft, pillow-y gnocchi were tossed with a tantalizing mix of garlic, marinated artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives, diced tomatoes and tangy feta cheese. A dusting of freshly grated Parmesan adorned the top. Usually one to tote home a take-out box containing a portion of uneaten meals, I uncharacteristically cleaned the plate.
James had chosen well. For as long as I can remember, the Dutchie in me had a love affair with dough. Be it chicken pot pie, buttered noodles, kopytka, pierogi, or any kind of dumplings or dough balls and James knew this well. He also knew every other ingredient in the dish was to my liking.
When my birthday rolled around that year, I requested a dinner at Ciao Pasts hoping to find the gnocchi dish on the menu — it was not nor was it at any other time we visited in the weeks after. Disappointed, I had given up hope of ever having this luscious dish again. But the gods of the great north woods smiled upon me.
Never one to intentionally watch the noon broadcast of local news, one day I just happened to be in the kitchen and turned on the small television that sat at the corner of the counter-top. Before I could pick up the remote control to turn the channel, I happened to catch an announcement that the guest chef for the cooking segment that day would be from Ciao Pasts in Franklin and he would be making a special dish from the restaurant, Mediterranean gnocchi. I dropped everything I was doing, grabbed pen and paper and sat anxiously waiting for the commercial break to end.
“James! James! Oh, my god! JAMES!!” I shouted. From his office on the second floor above the kitchen, I heard the clatter of his desk chair, the office room door fly open, and the pounding of his feet on the stairs as he flew down them as quickly as his legs could carry him, sure that I had lopped off a section of flesh on a finger or met with something equally as onerous.
“What? WHAT? WHAT’S WRONG?” he gasped, panting from his sprint downstairs. “I got it! I got it!” I exclaimed, waving around a ragged piece of notebook paper. “Got what?” he inquired, eyes still wide in the panic triggered from the as yet unknown source of my shouting. “I got the recipe from Ciao Pasta for the gnocchi I love so much!” I proclaimed gleefully. “Now I can make it anytime!”
As i looked at James, his face revealed every second of the rolling emotions that he was experiencing; relief that I was okay, followed by the realization that it was a false scare, ending with a twinge of anger — like that of a parent whose child frightens them by doing something that could have been disastrous, but they weren’t harmed — torn between the desire to hug them close and the urge to ground them.
“Well”, said James as he got his bearings, “I’m very happy for you, I know how much you liked it and how disappointing it has been that they have not had it on the menu when we’ve been there. Now, I’m going back upstairs to work and you’re going to the store to pick up whatever it is you need to make the gnocchi for dinner tonight. After that scare, I either need a lovely meal…or therapy. The meal will be cheaper.”
That evening was the first of many times I’ve made this Mediterranean gnocchi. Even with a recipe furnished by a restaurant, making a restaurant favorite dish it home often does not yield the same results due to cooking techniques and differences in preparation between restaurant versus home kitchen, but this recipe came out tasting just like the time I had it at Ciao Pasta.
It is very easy to prepare with ingredients readily available at most supermarkets. Easy to double, triple, or quadruple as needed, it is elegant enough to serve dinner guests — as I have often done through the years. It is also very open to personalizing to your tastes; use more or less of an ingredient as you desire.
The dish comes together quickly. Have all the ingredients ready add to the pan once the gnocchi is cooked.
So light a couple candles, open a bottle of wine, slice up some crusty Italian bread and enjoy this Mediterranean gnocchi as James and I did many times through the years..
Mediterranean GnocchiCourse: EntreeCuisine: Italian, GeneralDifficulty: Easy
6 ounces packaged gnocchi
2 diced seeded plum tomatoes
8 plain, canned or frozen artichoke hearts (cut in half if large)
10 to 12 pitted Kalamata olives, sliced in half
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon finely diced garlic
1 Tablespoon butter
1/4 cup good quality water-packed Greek feta cheese, crumbled
2 to 4 large leaves fresh basil, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese for garnish
- Cook gnocchi in salted boiling water as per package directions.
- When gnochi is nearly ready, in a frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the garlic and sauteed for 30 seconds. Add the diced tomatoes, Kalamata olives, basil, and artichoke hearts. Saute lightly for one to two minutes just to heat through. Add butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Once gnocchi are cooked, drain and add to the frying pan with the tomato mixture. Toss to combine and just warm all ingredients. Just before plating, sprinkle on the crumbled feta cheese and stir in. Serve immediately. Garnish with sprinkling of Parmesan cheese