The Luck of the Gnocchi

Americans are often surprised to learn that a great many South Americans claim Italian ancestry. Over 85 percent of the population of Argentina are descendants of European immigrants, and of that the majority are Italian. To avoid having to explain this confusing situation, many South Americans in the Italian food business in Houston simply advertise their fare as "authentic Italian food."

But not Ricardo Giannotti. He is so proud of his heritage, he wants everybody who comes to Giannotti's Italian-Argentinean Cafe (6539 Bissonnet, 713-270-4444) to know about it. Besides, he does a great business selling imported foods to fellow Italian-South Americans.

Giannotti's opened in 1983 around the corner from Star Pizza on Shepherd. But ten years ago, the cafe moved to Bissonnet, just west of Hillcroft. The place specializes in homemade pasta dishes, sandwiches, pastries and espresso drinks. But why isn't there any gnocchi on the menu?

There's a curious tradition involving gnocchi in Argentina. "On the 29th of every month, you are supposed to cook gnocchi," Giannotti explains. "Then I put some money, like a dollar bill, under your plate. And you put some money under my plate. Then I eat the gnocchi, lift up the plate and find the money, and put it in my pocket. This is supposed to bring good luck. I used to do it, but I don't anymore." The cafe used to cook gnocchi, he says, but now they import it in packages for people to buy and take home.

Giannotti also imports Argentine dulce de leche (a famous variety of caramel sauce), the herbal tea called yerba mate (a caffeinated cure-all popular in Uruguay), the cookies called alfagores (two wafers with caramel in the middle and a chocolate coating) and frozen empanada wrappers. "We're going to start importing Quilmes, the Argentine beer, next month, too," he says.

The restaurant's clientele is 50 percent Anglo and 30 percent Argentine, with Italians, Uruguayans and others making up the rest. Empanadas are the most popular menu item among Anglos, but South Americans love the sandwiches de migas, which are crustless and filled with a variety of stuffings, such as ham and cheese, or hard-boiled egg and anchovies. At six for seven bucks, they're inexpensive and popular at cocktail parties.

I was surprised to see that the menu included meatball, sausage and cold Italian sandwiches very much like those found at submarine shops. But Giannotti assures me that these sandwiches are quite popular in Buenos Aires. "They call a sausage sandwich a choripan, short for chorizo con pan," he says. "But in Argentina they also have some sandwiches you can't find in an American sub shop, like a matambre sandwich, which is made of rolled, cooked beef, sliced thin." There's also a whole menu section devoted to meatless sandwiches.

Giannotti has a lot of South American customers who come in just to drink his imported Italian espresso and argue about soccer.

"What happened to Argentina in the World Cup?" I ask him.

"We had the best team ever, and they didn't do a thing," Giannotti fumes. "Everybody in Argentina is so pissed. The Brazilians didn't do anything. No effort. But they just get lucky and win it. What can you do? Wait another four years."

I have one last question: "Was your luck better back when you used to do the gnocchi ritual?"

"Well, I can't complain," he says. "But you know, now that you have made me think about it, I am going to have to start doing it again."

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh