Friday, January 27, 2012

Deep Fried!

My good friend Sandro Rizzi shares a sarcastic sense of humour – something of a rarity in Italian society. In the heat of a good-spirited debate he resorts to calling me names. Usually it’s something along the lines ‘un povero mangiatore di pesce fritto e bevitore di Guiness’ [roughly translated, a poor fried fish eater and drinker of Guinness]. As far as Guinness is concerned, what can I say, I’m part Irish. As for the former, again I raise my hands: I have a liking for deep fried fish in batter – hardly surprising, given my parents were in the deep-fried-fish business back in Belfast.

Italians don’t like to admit it, but they too have a proclivity for deep-fried. You only have to look at the displays in bakeries and cake shops in the run up to Carnival. The mountainous trays of fried pastries are hard to miss. It’s a national preoccupation, the only thing that changes are the names – among others, chiacchiare (gossips) in Milan, crostoli in Alto Adige, bugie (lies) in Piedmont and lattughe (lettuces) in parts of Emila Romagna. Alongside these delicate flat pastries, frittelle (small deep-fried dough balls) - some stuffed with cream, others simply sprinkled with sugar – are practically ubiquitous throughout the country. And these are just a couple of the more common deep-fried treats, made and sold throughout the country this time of the year. To list all the regional variations would have me blogging into the next week!

As it happens, it’s not just deep-fried pastries that Italians are partial to. Nor is the deep-fryer reserved for those few weeks in the run up to Lent. Think about the popularity of fritto misto, a dish made and served in restaurants all along Italy’s 7,500 km’s of coastline and I begin to suspect I’m not the only mangiatore di pesce fritto in town.

I’m in the minority of Italians that doesn’t happen to live along the coast. But that doesn’t mean we don’t get our fair share of deep-fried. On the contrary, in the absence of an abundant supply of fresh seafood, we deep-fry our dough! It’s a specialty most commonly known as gnocco fritto. In Bologna, where it’s said to have originated, it also goes by the name crescentina. In Parma it’s called torta fritta and here in Piacenza it goes by the name of chisolini [or chisulén in the local dialect]. Needless to say these deep fried balls of dough go by many names. They are most often eaten over the summer months, being sold at practically every festival. However, restaurants in Emilia also serve them and so they have become a year-round deep-fried treat (or habit, if you like). Their popularity stretches beyond regional boundaries. I’ve lost count of the times a car has pulled up alongside me as I walked my son home from school only to be asked by the hungry out-of-town occupants (usually from Milan) as to the whereabouts of the nearest restaurant that serves gnocco fritto over lunch [many of the local restaurants only switch their fryers on in the evenings over the weekend].    

How they are eaten depends on where in the country you happen to be. At festivals they tend to be eaten straight out of a paper bag with just a sprinkling of salt. In restaurants they usually come as an antipasto along with a plate of mixed cured meats. In certain parts of the country they are filled with ham and soft cheese.  Personally I could eat them any way. But the best way, in my opinion, is as they do here in Piacenza – served in a basket alongside a platter of thick cut slices of local salami.

Deep fried dough
Gnocco fritto

Serves 4
Preparation time: 15 minutes + resting time
Cooking time: 5 minutes

300g strong plain flour
150-180ml tepid water
½ teaspoon salt
10g fresh yeast
Extra flour for dusting
Lard or oil for deep frying

To make the dough, place the flour on a work surface and mix in the salt. Make a well in the centre and crumble in the fresh yeast.  Next add the water and knead together for at least 5 minutes.  Cover the dough with a clean tea towel and let rise for 1 hour, or until doubled in size.  After the dough has risen, knock it down and knead again for a minute or two before dividing into about 16 pieces.

Heat the oil or lard (traditionally they are made with the latter) in a deep-sided frying pan. Roll each piece of dough into a round about ½ - 1cm in height.  Carefully place the dough, in batches, into the hot oil and fry for 2-3 minutes, turning half way through, until golden and puffed up (like little bellies).  Carefully remove the fried dough with a slotted spoon, drain and sprinkle with salt. Serve hot with slices of salami.


  1. Frito Misto - now you're going to make me cry. Oh, how I love it. Although we never quite could get into eating the whole fried little fishes. I miss Italy!

  2. Nice to hear from you AKA Jane Random. Those whole fried little fishes are an acquired habit, one I've well and truly acquired over the years. And yes, a good fritto misto makes me want to cry too!!!