My mom's lasagne and spaghetti aside, my first memories of "Italian" food were at the Depot restaurant in Napa. Opened in 1925 by Teresa Tamburelli, the Depot was a Napa Valley institution for generations, until it closed in 2004. For me, the appeal was always more about the vintage atmosphere than for the food, but there was one exception: the Depot's malfatti in a rich veal sugo.
On weekends and around the holidays, it wasn't unusual to see Napans lined up outside the kitchen door with pots and pans from home to pick up an order of the classic to go. While many that grew up on the Depot's Malfatti believed it was created by Tamburelli in the 1930's, it's actually a dish that has roots in Italy. Malfatti literally means "poorly made" in Italian, and while the shape may be irregular, the there's nothing poor about the taste.
Rich, tender and savory, Malfatti is like a more flavorful gnocchi with rustic charm.
What sets it apart is not just the shape (or lack of it), but the inclusion of a large quantity of leafy greens in the dough, giving the dumplings an emerald green color and verdant flavor. The malfatti at the Depot used stale bread as its base, but I actually prefer using a combination of fresh ricotta with flour and semolina, because it creates a more flavorful dumpling that holds up better in sauce.
Like gnocchi, the key to making a tender malfatti is to use as little flour as possible to make the dough. Flour not only makes the malfatti dense and heavy, it also makes them chewy. That's why It's important to squeeze as much water out of the spinach as you can and to use ricotta that's been thoroughly drained. Otherwise your dough will end up too soft and you'll need to add more flour to help them hold their shape.
This makes about sixty malfatti, so for the first day, I served these with browned butter, crispy sage leaves, meyer lemon zest and plenty of parmigiano reggiano. The combo strikes a terrific balance between the green flavors of the spinach and sage, the richness of the cheese, the nuttiness of the browned butter and the bright zing of lemon. While the dumplings are indeed malformed, they make for an attractive hot mess that tastes even better than they look.
As long as you coat the outside of the dumplings with enough semolina, and keep them covered, they'll keep in the fridge for up to two days, so the next day I went with a more familiar pot of sugo for the rest of the malfatti, which certainly does bring back memories.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil and boil the spinach until tender (but still vibrant green), about 1 1/2 minutes. Drain and plunge into ice water to stop the cooking and set the color. Squeeze as much water as you can out of the spinach using your hands. I ended up with 240 grams of cooked spinach after squeezing and the ball of spinach fit comfortably in my hand. Finely chop the spinach with a knife, or stick it in a food processor to mince it for you.
- Add the spinach to a bowl along with the ricotta, parmigiano reggiano, all-purpose flour, semolina, salt, and nutmeg and mix until thoroughly combined. Depending on how moist your ricotta was, you may need to add some extra semolina. The dough will be very soft, but should be firm enough to hold a spatula inserted into the center vertically.
- Sprinkle an even layer of semolina onto a work surface and drop a manageable piece of dough onto the surface. Roll the dough into a rope about 1/2-inch thick and then use a pastry knife to cut the rope into 2-inch long pieces.
- The ends will likely get squished so roll each piece between your hands to form little cylinders, using semolina to keep them from sticking to your hands. Place the finished malfatti on a non-stick sheet pan. You can store these covered in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
- When you're ready to serve the malfatti, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
- Place the butter and sage leaves in a large frying pan and then place over medium-low heat. If you don't have a pan that's large enough to hold the malfatti comfortably in a single layer, you may need to use 2 pans.
- Add the malfatti to the boiling water and cook until they float to the surface (about 2-3 minutes). Drain and then toss with the browned butter adding salt and pepper to taste.
- Plate the malfatti, and garnish with a generous sprinkle of grated parmigiano reggiano and some meyer lemon zest.