It was late. We were tired. Lunch, such as it had been on the aeroplane, seemed a long time ago. We climbed the stairs to the flat of my brother, Johnny, and his wife, Mary, in Rome with rather less than the joie de vivre and joviality with which we had set off oh so many hours before. The door opened and warmth and comfort and welcome came flooding out. A glass of wine - local stuff, nothing fancy - and I could feel the blood coming back into my eyeballs. And supper, too?
There was a cry of anguish from the kitchen. "It's completely ruined!" The agony in my brother's voice was palpable.
"What's the matter?" said Mary with crisp concern, bustling through to see what her helpmeet was moaning about. And then we heard, "Oh, for heaven's sake, Johnny! There's nothing wrong with it. There's just a bit stuck to the bottom of the pan. Don't make such a fuss."
"I knew I shouldn't have put it in so early," said Johnny again, as he came through with a plate piled high with what appeared to be green-flecked snowballs with a splash of rich, cardinal-red tomato sauce all over them. "Ruined! Ruined! Ruined!"
Well, if that's his idea of ruin, I want to eat ruined food every day. When you come to the end of a day of modern air travel, any food is welcome, but some food is more welcome than others. Some food seems almost divinely inspired. And this was it - spinach and ricotta gnocchi that were as light as clouds, fleecy and delectable. The tomato sauce had that magical combination of freshness and meatiness that you get with proper tomatoes, with just a whisper of basil wafting through and through. There was a salad, too - green and crunchy, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds that popped between our teeth. And finally my nephew, James, aged 12, brought in the pudding that he had made - granita di caffe con panna in elegant champagne glasses: cool, not quite sweet, crisp, with very fine crystals and a powerful clip of coffee. The journey was forgotten.
All recipes serve four.
Gnocchi di ricotta e spinaci
350g frozen spinach, thawed, or fresh spinach weighed when cooked
100g grated parmesan
Salt and pepper
Place the ricotta in a large bowl and beat until smoothish. Dry the spinach well and chop finely or pass through a coarse mouli. Don't use a blender - it becomes too sloppy.
Add the spinach and the parmesan to the ricotta, then add two of the eggs and mix well. If the consistency is dry, add all or part of the third egg, but do not get the mixture too wet or it will be difficult to handle. Season with grated nutmeg to taste. The nutmeg flavour is lost a little in the cooking, so add a bit more than you think is necessary, plus salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Cover the mixture and pop into the fridge for at least an hour.
When you want to form the gnocchi, cover a large plate or tray with a good centimetre of flour. Drop in dessertspoons full of the gnocchi mixture and gently roll until you can pick them up in floured hands and roll into flour-covered balls. Put these on to a generously floured second tray and place them in a cool place until you need them.
When you're ready, drop the gnocchi into a large, wide pan of gently boiling water, six or seven at a time. Wait until they float to the surface, let them cook for a further 30 seconds and then scoop them out gently with a slotted spoon and drain well before placing in an ovenproof dish with a little tomato sauce (see below) in the bottom. Now pour a little more sauce over the top. Keep the cooked ones warm while you're poaching the rest of the gnocchi.
When all the gnocchi are cooked, cover generously with tomato sauce and serve with a separate bowl of grated parmesan. The gnocchi should be translucent and light.
Johnny's basic salsa di pomodoro
1 large onion
5 cloves garlic
2-3 tbsp olive oil
Handful of basil leaves
1 large tin tomatoes (or 2 tins tomato pulp)
1 bottle tomato passata
Salt and pepper
Slice the onion very finely (on a mandolin if you have one), then cut it roughly into smaller bits. Peel and cut up the garlic. Put in a pan with oil and the cut-up basil leaves, and fry very gently for 5-10 minutes, covered.
Meanwhile, cut the tinned tomatoes into smallish cubes. Add the tomato and all juices to the pan, with the passata, and season. Cook for 30 minutes on a low flame, partially covered. It's ready.
This is what we had that Friday, and it's a useful sauce to have in the fridge for odd moments, but if you have more time you can do the following to make it more exciting:
Johnny's more exciting salsa di pomodoro
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Garlic - as much as you want
1-1½ dried peperoncino chillies
4-5 basil leaves
Pour the olive oil into a saucepan. Peel and slice the garlic, and chop the peperoncino and basil leaves finely. Add them to the oil and cook on a very low heat until the garlic is brown. Then add the sauce above and cook it all together for 5-10 minutes.
James's granita di caffe con panna
This was an unusually refined version of a dish you find all over Italy. The coffee does need to be really strong.
80g granulated sugar
250ml strong black coffee
1 vanilla pod or 2 drops of vanilla essence
Pinch of powdered cinnamon
100ml whipping cream
2 dsp icing sugar
Put 250ml water and the granulated sugar into a saucepan. Heat until the sugar has dissolved, then boil for at least a minute. Turn down the heat and add the coffee to the syrup. Mix well. Take it off the heat.
Slice the vanilla pod along its length. Scrape out the seeds and add them (or the vanilla essence) to the coffee syrup, along with the cinnamon. Mix well to make sure the vanilla seeds and the spice spread throughout the coffee syrup.
Allow to cool completely. Transfer the mixture to a plastic container, pop that into a freezer and leave for two hours, stirring with a fork every 10-15 minutes. The granules should be fine, almost mushy by the end.
When you come to serve it, whip the cream and icing sugar until quite stiff. Divide up the granita between four glasses and plop a dollop of whipped cream on top of each.