The Potato Dumpling Gang 

South Americans flock to gnocchi tradition at West End eatery

When Alexia Cabrera opened Nola’s last year, passersby looked quizzically at the tiny shotgun restaurant that fused so many culinary ideas into a single strip mall storefront.
When Alexia Cabrera opened Nola’s last year, passersby looked quizzically at the tiny shotgun restaurant that fused so many culinary ideas into a single strip mall storefront. Was it Cajun food, as the acronym for New Orleans, La., implied? Was it Uruguayan cuisine—whatever that is? After all, Cabrera does hail from the South American country. Or was it a rhyming offshoot of Zola, the tony North African-Mediterranean fusion restaurant across the street? (No, there’s no relation.)

Over time, Cabrera has developed a small following of adventurous diners who gravitate to her no-nonsense fare, which blends the spicy influences of New Orleans, the beef-heavy repertoire of Uruguay and the imported flair of the many Italians who settled in South America between World War I and World War II. In particular, she has lured a cadre of carnivores who revel in the chivito, Uruguay’s national dish—a grilled-steak sandwich, layered decadently with cheese, peppers, onions, tomato, lettuce, mayonnaise, bacon and egg, served on crusty bread with chimichurri sauce.

Still, as delicious as it is, Nola’s menu flings abruptly from a sizzling Argentine parrillada (mixed grill of beef) to her Italian grandmother’s homemade ravioli to a fried oyster po’boy, with an ethnic schizophrenia that has left some potential customers scratching their heads and, perhaps, seeking more geographically focused menus along the midtown corridor of mega-chains.

But the confusion of such menu sprawl subsides for at least one day a month, when Cabrera delivers a traditional meal that succinctly embodies the fusion of European and South American cultures at the heart of her homey restaurant. On the 29th day of every month (or the day prior, if the 29th is a Sunday, when the restaurant is closed), Cabrera serves up fresh gnocchi, shell-shaped potato dumplings, in keeping with the traditions of her home country. “I’m 13 years out of Uruguay,” she says, “and I’m still doing it.”

Gnocchi Day stems from the early part of the 20th century, when many Europeans—particularly Italians—immigrated to South America. Caught off-guard by the region’s custom of paying out salaries only at the end of the month, many Europeans living in Uruguay, Argentina and neighboring countries found themselves in the final days of the pay cycle with empty pockets, bare cupboards and hungry bellies.

The solution: scour the larder for staples such as potatoes and flour to make a simple, filling dish of Italian-style dumplings. And if there’s any stale bread hanging around, make a bread pudding. “In my family, if you’re going to get flour, you’re going to get flour all the way,” Cabrera says.

If April 28 was any indicator (the 29th fell on a Sunday), Gnocchi Day is a hit. The dining room bustled with customers, many of them South American, providing Nashville with a singular cultural experience.

In her tiny kitchen, Cabrera mixes boiled potatoes and piles of flour in a hot-pink mixer, which she purchased on sale because nobody wanted the flamboyant color. She rolls the warm, pillowy dough into long snakes, which she cuts into 1-inch sections. Using a simple plastic tool that she translates comically as “a gnocchi thing,” she rolls the sections of dough against the surface to get a striped imprint and make them curl up like little shells. In fact, the dried-pasta shape known as gnochetti is designed to resemble the tiny conchs of the fresh pasta, which Spanish-speakers refer to as ñoqui.

Cabrera, who studied cooking in Uruguay and earned her Cajun stripes in the kitchen of the erstwhile Patrick’s restaurant, tests the water with the tip of her asbestos forefinger. When it’s ready, she places a generous serving of some 30 dumplings into the rolling boil and lets them cook a couple minutes until they float to the top. She removes and strains the gnocchi, then piles them into an oversize white bowl and tops the steaming plate with a rich sauce of roasted tomatoes, peppers, garlic, chorizo, bacon, carrots and sirloin medallions so tender they cut with a fork.

Out in the dining room—adorned sparsely with deep paint colors, a few New Orleans jazz-themed paintings and an array of framed newspaper clippings of Nola’s early reviews—there is the comfortable feel of a family reunion. Tables overflow with children and snippets of Spanish conversation.

Rodrigo Beron, from Argentina, and his wife Karina, from Uruguay, along with their extended family, sit at a table littered with large plates wiped clean but for a few streaks of tomato sauce. Gnocchi Day is a tradition for Beron, who refers to himself and the rest of the end-of-the-month crowd as “citizens of Nola’s.”

At a table nearby, Uruguayan Fernando Rondan, who bakes the crusty bread for Nola’s chivitos, enjoys a traditional lunch while the diners around him use his product to sop up red sauce. Among the sauce-soppers is Lourdes Cuellar from Asuncion, Paraguay. “Some of this food is so similar to how we prepare it in Paraguay, it is really awesome,” says Cuellar, who teaches Spanish at University School of Nashville. “The gnocchi makes me feel like I’m at home. Besides, it’s cheap and it fills you up.”

According to tradition, guests leave coins under their gnocchi plates in hopes of a better income next month. While not everyone abides by the custom at Nola’s, Cabrera still hopes Gnocchi Day will pay off. As she works to establish her restaurant along a competitive avenue of larger, more established nameplates, it just might be the humble tradition of gnocchi that brings customers—and prosperity—to her door.

Nola’s will next host Gnocchi Day on Tuesday, May 29, featuring a $10.99 special of gnocchi with beef medallions and, for dessert, bread pudding. Reservations recommended.

Nola’s is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

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