If you ever find yourself in a Venetian greengrocer some time in autumn, you might be lucky enough to stumble upon a variety of sweet potato marketed as ‘Patate USA’. Despite the store’s laughable attempt to shake off a bit of healthy provincialism by means of fancy words such as ‘USA’ (that’s a fancy word in the countryside of Veneto, in case you’re wondering), what you have actually found is a true niche product from the area, one to which Venetians are so nostalgically attached that they are able to sustain hour-long conversations about its qualities and merits. You’ve found patate americane.
Patate americane, particularly those grown in Southern Veneto, are small in size, with a beige, sandy skin concealing a white, dense, smooth, sugary flesh whose low water and high sugar content mark their superiority over most yams. The variety became extremely popular in the area after it was brought over from the Americas and found a suitable habitat in the fertile flatlands of Polesine. Locals enjoy them simply roasted (best cooked under hot coals), and eat them as a warming snack, better still if accompanied by a glass of new wine. Another classic use is in gnocchi (large knots of sweet potato and flour, seasoned, Renaissance-style, with molasses, cinnamon and grated cheese) or in traditional baked goods.
My family never made Renaissance gnocchi, but repurposed any leftover patate americane in the form of crostata — a tart that is curiously reminiscent of American pumpkin pie.