Traditional Italian home-cooking featured prominently in Melissa Canclini's life as she was growing up.
"As a child, I preferred playing with gnocchi dough than I did with Barbie dolls," Canclini tells SBS Food.
Decades later, Canclini is still playing with gnocchi. The only difference now is that gnocchi is the specialty on the menu of her own restaurant, L'olio La Gnoccheria, located in the suburban streets of Smithfield in Sydney's southwest.
On the menu at L'olio, there are now 10 different gnocchi dishes. There's one with mixed mushrooms, sage, garlic butter and cream, another with prawn, tomato, truffle oil and chilli, and another with a Napolitana sauce for something a little more classic.
The gnocchi recipe that Canclini has come to perfect follows years of experimenting, after being taught from a young age by her mum how to make them. The only problem with her mum's recipe was that there was none.
"My mum just used to say, 'It's a bit of everything', and because of that it always came out different. But when I actually became a chef, I started to learn different ways of how to do it…so I took everything I learned in those restaurants to create my own", she says.
"My mum just used to say, 'It's a bit of everything'."
Canclini's gnocchi recipe starts with the usual base ingredients of 00 flour and potatoes. Then it's rolled out by hand and twice-cooked, which she claims is what makes them lighter and fluffier. Sometimes she'll add parmesan or an egg, but it depends on the moisture of the potatoes or if she's making vegan-friendly versions.
"[Gnocchi] shouldn't get stuck in your throat. Gluggy, heavy gnocchi is just a no-no. You want the opposite of that. You want something that you can bite into, but is fluffy, light, and digestible…not like chewing gum," she says.
But coming up with her own gnocchi recipe wasn't completely smooth sailing. She recalls that in the early days, she regularly found herself arguing with the potato supplier.
"I used to argue with my fruit guy who used to then pass it on to the farmers. They'd tell me their potatoes were perfect. But I told them it was taking me five hours to mix a batch that should take 45 minutes, so I would tell them there was a problem with their potatoes because my recipe hadn’t changed," Canclini says.
"Now, I've adjusted the recipe because the farmers won't change the potato, so I've learned to work with what I've got."
Many of the gnocchi dishes on her menu are also gluten-free, which came at the request of customers and family members. These are flavoured with spinach and ricotta, beetroot, squid ink or pumpkin.
"It took me years to get [it] right. I never wanted to do gluten free, but all my cousins are gluten free and they kept asking, so what I did was change most of my menu to gluten free," she says. "People who aren't gluten free haven't complained because they can't tell the difference when I use gluten-free flour."
In addition to the existing gnocchi dishes, Canclini has her sight set on introducing other dishes to her customers, such as gnocchi lasagne, a red and white version of gnocchi parmigiana, and even a baby-sized "gnocchini".
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Photographs by Aimee Chanthadavong
L'Olio La Gnoccheria
60 Dublin Street, Smithfield
Thu and Fri: 12pm-2.30pm and 6pm-9pm; Sat: 6pm-9pm
"This is the most brilliant tomato sauce – its versatility is limitless. Pour over pasta, braise vegies in it, use as a pizza base or between layers of a vegie lasagna or here, with gnocchi. It needs nothing else, intense with fragrant garlic and the intensity of perfectly vine-ripened tomatoes. As for the gnocchi, there seems to be common perception that it’s difficult to make. So long as you stick to a couple of hard and fast rules – to not overcook and water log the potatoes and to squeeze instead of knead the gnocchi dough, I promise all will be well." Poh Ling Yeow, Poh & Co.