The word malfatti literally translates as "badly made," a seemingly unappetizing description for any recipe. Yet malfatti, prepared by home cooks throughout Italy, are one of my favorite pasta dishes. They get their name because they're formed by hand, each one different from all others. A fancy restaurant is more likely to call them spinach gnocchi, but you probably could ask for malfatti by their proper name at a humbler trattoria or osteria.
Here is a simple and tasty recipe from Suzanne Dunaway's Rome, at Home (Broadway Books, 2004):
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- 1 pound spinach leaves, steamed, drained until very dry, and chopped
- 1 cup ricotta cheese or cottage cheese left out for eight hours to sour
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons butter, softened
In a mixing bowl, combine the spinach, ricotta or cottage cheese, eggs, one half cup of the flour (or enough to make sure the mixture is not runny but like a very thick paste), one half cup of the Parmigiano-Reggiano, the nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste.
Put the rest of the flour on a large plate or in a shallow baking dish. With a teaspoon, drop balls of the ricotta mixture into the flour.
With your hands, toss the little balls of ricotta mixture in the flour, coating the outside, until you can handle them easily. Do not compact them.
Make a few, leaving them on the floured plate, and bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Lower the heat until the water is simmering and gently place the malfatti in the water.
Let them simmer, but not boil, for three to five minutes or until they roll over and float to the top. Lift them with a slotted spoon, draining well, and place them in a buttered baking dish.
Continue making and poaching the balls until you've used up the mixture and the dish is full.
Dot the malfatti with soft butter, sprinkle them with the rest of the Parmigiano-Reggiano, and bake for 10 minutes until golden. I like malfatti plain but you can also serve them with a tomato or besciamella (béchamel) sauce.
The Birthplace of Italian: Montecassino
Italian was officially born in the year 960 in a property settlement between the monks of the famed Benedictine monastery at Montecassino (Monte Cassino in most English texts) and squatters who had filed a claim for a plot of adjacent land. This judgment, called the Placito di Capua, is the earliest surviving document to include the vernacular (volgare) or the people's spoken languageand the great monument of early Italian.
After a Latin summary of the case, the three judges at a court in the town of Cassino granted the land to the monks on the basis of prior possession. In his own hand each judge repeated the verdict in a language that was no longer Latin but not yet Italian: "Sao ko kelle terre, per kelle fini qui ki contene, trenta anni le possette parte Sancti Benedicti." "I know," each wrote, "that the abbey of St. Benedict possessed these lands, within the borders to which this refers, for 30 years."
The Placito di Capua marked a sea change for Italian. For the first time the people of the peninsula clearly realized they were speaking a language distinct from Latin. This vernacular came to be known as lingua materna, the mother tongue, while Latin, which students had to go to school to learn, was called la grammatica. The number of recognized words in the mother tongue roughly tripled between the years 950 to 1300, from a mere 5,000 to an estimated 10,000 to 15,000.
The abbey of Montecassino pre-dates Italian by several centuries. In 529 Saint Benedict built this monastery for his Benedictine order about 80 miles southeast of Rome. Once a temple of Apollo had crowned this rocky hill above the Roman town of Casinum. Benedict and his monks smashed the pagan sculptures and altars, built chapels and rededicated the site to St. John the Baptist.
Because of its strategic location and vantage point, the abbey was repeatedly attacked. After the Lombards sacked the monastery in 584, the monks fled to Rome, where the order remained for more than a century. By the eighth century the abbey was again flourishing, and a nobleman bequeathed to it the Terra Sancti Benedicti, lands that were subject only to the abbot and the Pope. The Saracens sacked the abbey in the ninth century. Their descendants may have been the squatters whose claim to the monks' lands was denied by the Placito di Capua.
In the depths of the Dark Ages, one of the Benedictines, a historian called Paolo Diacono, created the first "scriptorium," a room where monks quite literally saved Western civilization by transcribing Greek and Roman poetry, grammar, math, geometry, and history, including the writings of Ovid, Plato, Horace, and Virgil. Montecassino became renowned as a center of learning, where scholarly monks not only collected and copied but also summarized, taught, illustrated, and wrote commentaries on the ancient classics. The library today contains over 40,000 parchments.
The abbey again found itself at the center of a battle during World War II. The Germans had exported most of the monastery's valuable art to the safety of the Vatican in Rome and denied using Montecassino as a garrison. Allied intelligence indicated otherwise. In heavy air raids in January, 1944, the entire building was completely destroyed in what an American commander later described as "a tragic error."
German troops occupied the ruined site and waged a fierce battle that raged for months and left tens of thousands of soldiers dead on both sides. The abbey was rebuilt after the war, mostly to its fourteenth-century layout, and reconsecrated in 1964.
The only surviving features of the original building are the crypts that house relics of St. Benedict and his twin sister St. Scholastica. But the views from the hilltop aerie remain eternally magnificent.
For more information:
Vardey, Lucinda. Traveling with the Saints in Italy: Contemporary Pilgrimages on Ancient Paths. Mahwah, N.J.: Hidden Spring, 2005.