I have been in Sardinia for three weeks now and am finally able to understand a bit more Italian. My first week in Sardinia, I could hardly understand anything anyone said to me. Though I have traveled to Europe and Asia before, I never felt that culture shock which so many people talk about. But surprisingly this time around I had a difficult time my first week in Sardinia. Don’t get me wrong, this trip has been amazing so far. Sardinia is gorgeous, the people are very friendly, and the food and wine are incredible! However, I seemed to have lost my voice upon arrival, so to speak.
We are staying in my boyfriend’s family home with his parents while here and his parents don’t speak or understand any English. My first week in their home, I had no idea what they were saying to me. While I can understand a bit of Italian now, his parents also speak more Sardo than Italian anyway. In general, I haven’t had to “meet the parents” in years. But to meet the parents and not be able to ask them questions or tell them about myself or easily communicate while staying in their home seemed very daunting.
And to be honest, the first week was a little daunting for me. I tried to speak with them in English and, of course, they couldn’t understand. I attempted to speak in Italian and they definitely didn’t understand, ha! Hand gestures, hugs, and positive body language helped. But the language barrier was real. I never had so much difficulty communicating in my life. I even attempted to use the Google translator app, but I don’t think Mama Pina was feeling it. Marco’s dad had no problem speaking with me even though he knew I couldn’t understand everything. However, his mom was more timid to speak with me and insisted on talking to me through Marco. I was and still am dying to get to know his parents better. And I would imagine they may feel the same way about me. But only time and studying can remedy the verbal communication situation.
Quando Possiamo Cucinare
So when words were failing me, I turned to a universal language we can all count on – food!
“Quando possiamo cucinare?” I asked Mama Pina. When can we cook?
The next day we were in the kitchen together with Marco and Papa Sanna watching over us. Marco also insisted on opening a bottle of rosato for everyone to drink together because in Sardinia where there is food there is wine.
On the menu: zizoneddos con finocchietto selvatico e salsa di pomodoro. Translation: Sardinian gnocchetti with wild fennel and tomato sauce.
If you’re doing a Google search for a similar recipe, these gnocchetti are generally known under the name Malloreddus. However, Marco’s family knows this lovely little pasta as Zizoneddos because that is the name of the pasta in Anela, his family’s village.
One of the things I love about the Sanna household is that everything is homemade and homegrown. Salad, herbs, and vegetables come from the garden in the backyard. Mushrooms and wild herbs are foraged from the mountains. The family even makes their own wine and cheese! And in this case, the zizoneddos on the menu would all be made by hand.
First, Mama Pina heated a small pot of water on the stove until it was warm but not simmering. You want tepid water, or acqua tiepida in Italiano. Then we got started on the simple tomato sauce before Mama Pina pulled back the tablecloth from the wooden kitchen table which would be our surface for pasta making.
While cooking is a science, measurements don’t always have to be exact. Mama Pina only uses her hands as measuring utensils and does not rely on the help of scales, measuring cups, or tablespoons/teaspoons. So I have estimated a few of the measurements in the recipe below. Feel free to adjust to your taste.
For the zizoneddos, using both hands Mama Pina measured 5 big handfuls of semola flour. This flour is made from durham wheat and is not to be confused with semolina – a more coarsely ground flour than semola. This was enough flour to make about a bread loaf sized mound of pasta dough which we used for the Sardinian gnocchetti and for a batch of ravioli. So for the recipe below, I adjusted the amount of flour to be suitable for the zizoneddos. That being said, you can adjust the amount of flour to make a larger or smaller batch of gnocchetti.
Put the semola flour into a large bowl. Slowly drizzle the warm water over the flour while using your hands to combine (a squeezing motion works well to start).
Once all of the flour is combined, remove the mixture from the bowl and place onto a wooden surface. As mentioned above, we used the wooden kitchen table which I later found out has been in the family for over thirty years! Imagine all of the pasta and bread that has been made on that table!
Next, knead the dough with your hands until the dough is as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Use the palms and heels of your hands to push the dough forward against the table and then pull back. When the dough gets stretched out to the sides, fold the dough back in on itself and continue kneading. Watching Mama Pina work the dough was incredible, her hands moving with such efficiency and ease.
When the dough is completely smooth, form into a large oval shape and allow the dough to rest under a hand towel for 10 minutes or so.
When you are ready to form the gnocchetti, cut off a piece of dough about 2 inches wide. Cut that piece into 4 or 5 smaller pieces, as shown in the photo below.
Next, using your hands roll each piece of dough into longer strands. You’ll want to use the top of your palms and the base of your fingers. Gently roll outwards with your hands transitioning your hand orientation from straight forward to a 45° angle as you roll, stretching the dough outwards as you roll back and forth. You will end with a strand of dough about 2 feet long, 2 cm wide, and cylindrical in shape.
Once you have the strands formed, fold them in half lining the halves up against one another. Cut each strand of dough into small and equal pieces, about 1.5 – 2 cm long.
Then, using your thumbs press each small piece of dough into the curved shape traditional of the zizoneddos. In order to do so, gently press down on a small piece of dough with the pad of your thumb and roll from the center of the pad to the lower edge of your thumb. Use a pushing/flicking motion to create the curved shell-like shape of the zizoneddos.
Lay out the completed Sardinian gnocchi pieces on a large sheet pan or tray covered in parchment paper while you finish making the rest of the pasta. The Sardinian gnocchi can be cooked right away or frozen for use at a later date.
To finish the zizonnedos dish, cook the gnocchetti in boiling water with wild fennel (finochietto selvatico), then toss with a homemade tomato sauce and cheese of your choice. To make this dish even more special, get in the kitchen with someone you love. Cooking the zizonnedos together definitely brought Mama Pina and I closer, language barrier and all. Follow the recipe below and don’t forget the wine!
Zizoneddos are a traditional Sardinian gnocchetti also known as malloreddus. This recipe is for zizoneddos cooked with wild fennel and finished with a simple tomato sauce.
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1/4 onion, diced
- 45 ounces tomato sauce
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp dried basil leaves (or 1 large pinch)
- 1/4 tsp sugar (or one small pinch)
- 1 tbsp salt
- 2 cups semola flour (500 grams)
- 1 cup wild fennel/finocchietto selvatico (fresh herb)
- 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Warm a small pot of water until tepid.
Measure 2 cups (500 grams) of semola flour into a large bowl. Create a shallow hole in the center of the flour and slowly drizzle the tepid water into the flour with one hand while mixing with your other hand.
Using a squeezing motion, combine the semola flour and water until no loose flour is left.
Once combined, remove the rough dough from the bowl and place on a wooden surface or table. Knead the dough with your hands until the dough becomes smooth to the touch, but not so soft that it is extremely pliable between your fingers.
Allow the dough to rest under a kitchen towel or cloth for 10 minutes.
Cut off a piece of dough about 1.5 inches wide. Then cut that piece into 4 or 5 other pieces lengthwise.
Using the tops of your palms and base of your fingers, roll each piece of dough out into a long, cylindrical strand. Start with your hands oriented forward and turn outwards to a 45° angle as you roll in order to stretch the dough into a long strand about 2 ft. long, 2 cm wide, and round like a cylinder.
Fold each strand of dough in half, lining up the halves of each strand against each other.
Cut each strand into pieces of dough about 2 cm long, similar to the size of the nail on your pinky finger.
Using the pad of your thumb, gently press down and forward on each small piece of dough using a rolling motion to create the curved shape of the zizoneddos.
Lay the formed pasta onto a sheet pan or tray lined with parchment paper as you repeat the process with the rest of the dough. The pasta can be cooked immediately to serve or frozen to cook at a later date
Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
In a separate medium sized pot, heat 2 tbsp of olive oil over medium heat. Add the diced 1/4 onion and minced clove of garlic. Sauté for 1-2 minutes until fragrant and the onion is translucent.
Add 45 ounces of tomato sauce to the aromatics. Add 1 tbsp salt, 1 tsp (or a pinch) of sugar, and 1 tbsp of dried basil leaves.
Allow the tomato sauce to simmer on low heat while you prepare the fresh pasta. At least 15 minutes.
Once the water has come to a boil, add 1 cup fresh wild fennel herb (finnocchietto selvatico). Cook the pasta in the herbed water for 4-5 minutes. Fresh pasta cooks quickly, so watch the pasta and taste test to ensure you do not overcook the pasta.
Drain the pasta and finnocchietto selvatico in a colander. Top the pasta and wild fennel with the tomato sauce and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (or a cheese of your choosing).