As I’ve written before, I am obsessed with gnocchi, both because perfectly made gnocchi are heaven on earth and also because making such gnocchi has eluded me. And so I was delighted to learn that a chef I admire would be offering a class on gnocchi. Desperate to master the arcane secrets of gnocchi making, and curious to see how someone else approaches the art of teaching cooking classes, I eagerly signed up. Sweetening the deal was the fact that the class would be offered at Palladio restaurant, where Melissa Close is executive chef, and which is part of the Barboursville wine estate near Charlottesville, VA. I’ve loved Virginia since my first road trip there late in high school. My wife and I got engaged at a B&B in Virginia, climbed Old Rag mountain together, and dined at Palladio restaurant during the height of our courtship. But it had been 12 years, and I was due for a return visit. My first stop was Front Royal, having received a tip that there was an excellent coffee roaster and barista in town. I wasn’t disappointed. Happy Creek Coffee and Tea offers excellent espresso drinks and properly frothed milk from a beautiful, full-manual espresso machine with a pull lever (as in “pull a shot”). A coffee shop which also roasts its own coffee is a beautiful thing. I didn’t see much else in Front Royal that would draw me back, but Happy Creek was worth a detour. Heading south from Front Royal on Rt. 522 offers an exquisite and idyllic drive, running parallel to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive. This part of Virginia offers a landscape both aristocratic and agricultural. One sees meticulously maintained farms, mostly raising Black Angus cattle, but as the Virginia wine industry continues to grow, more and more lovely vineyards grace the landscape, comprised of rolling hills and soft meadows framed by the graceful Blue Ridge mountains. Just when I thought the day couldn’t get better, it did, as I passed a sign for the tiny hamlet of Little Washington, home to one of this country’s most prized restaurants: The Inn at Little Washington. The restaurant’s reputation precedes it, but though I knew of its general location in this part of the state, I never imagined I’d practically run right into it. Having a little time to spare, I made a U-turn and followed the signs for town. I was delighted to find not only the inn and restaurant but a kitchen garden to provide the restaurant with produce. Although it was mid-October, the garden had fall peas in flower and the threat of frost was nowhere near. Although I’ve never dined or stayed at the inn, a return trip has become a high priority.
Another hour or so south and I arrived at Barboursville. I had arrived several hours before the class to taste through the estate’s wines. Although wineries on the East coast sadly often have more to do with tourism than producing first-rate wine, Barboursville is seeking to be an exception. Its wines, under the management of winemaker Luca Paschina, frequently distinguish themselves and Barboursville is a leader in the attempt to make Virginia a legitimate and respected wine-making region. Unfortunately, the tasting, which consisted of about a dozen wines, far too many to make sense of at one sitting, was disappointing. The descriptions given by the pouring staff seemed based more on a memorized script than on any personal or deep knowledge of the wines. Although the wines were interesting and worthy of attention, the format and atmosphere of the tasting undermined one’s ability to seriously focus on the wines, and the whole experience reflected the sort of wine tourism that winemaker Luca Paschina and other serious Virginia winemakers decry, complete with the arrival of a mega-bus of tourists while I was there. I was a bit deflated, though I would love to taste these wines in a more appropriate setting. Returning a couple of hours later for the cooking class, I was delighted to set foot in Palladio once again. Our meal there 12 years ago was memorable, and I admire chef Melissa Close’s emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients and her fidelity to Italian cooking as it is practiced in Italy. I was saddened that on this trip a meal at the restaurant wasn’t possible, with it being closed both the day of and day after the cooking class. The cooking class was fun, and it was nice to be a student rather than an instructor for a change. Chef Close showed herself to be a kind and humble person and teacher, not the sort of arrogant, intense chef too often the norm in fine dining kitchens. We made both potato and goat cheese gnocchi, and several sauces to accompany them. The gnocchi were good, but not a revelation, and I didn’t find the magic bullet I so unrealistically had hoped to find. The recipe we used for potato gnocchi was a standard one (baking potatoes, flour, and egg), and the results were more homey than ethereal, which is often the case even in Italy. Of course, the gnocchi we ate were the result of the group efforts of the class, not the focused work of a highly trained chef, and I’m perfectly prepared to believe that the gnocchi Chef Close serves at Palladio surpass those we made that night. If only I could have tried them as a guest at the restaurant itself! And so, although the gnocchi didn’t meet my rather unrealistic and unreasonable expectations, I still highly recommend the restaurant and Chef Close’s cooking classes. A trip to Palladio is always time and effort well spent.
It was a great trip with both pleasant surprises and mild disappointments, but the search for gnocchi nirvana goes on. Rather than having discouraged me, it has redoubled my dedication to find the ethereal gnocchi of my dreams.