Buenos Aires, 1955. An Italian immigrant named Luigi opens a nondescript cantina on the corner of Billinghurst and Valentín Gomez in Almagro.
Musicians and singers – including tango-singing legend Roberto Goyeneche – begin to gather there. Soccer stars, poets and painters follow. Don Carlos flourishes, but Luigi grows tired of the glam and sells the restaurant to Domingo Lamosa Baltasar in 1971.
Intent on preserving Don Carlos’ status as a neighborhood fixture, Baltasar initiates a peculiar custom: eating gnocchi on the 29th of every month (a Río de la Plata tradition that remains popular to this day).
Local food historians dispute whether Balthasar actually invented the gnocchi on the 29th phenomenon, arguing that the tradition actually dates back to a feast commemorating San Pantoleón, an Italian saint of abundant harvests. However, no one disagrees with the fact that Baltasar gave birth to the Golden Gnocchi.
Awarded to a local or international celebrity on the 29th of every month, the Golden Gnocchi is what locals consider “the strangest gastronomic prize in Buenos Aires.”
Diego Maradona, Osvaldo Pugliese, Marcelo Tinelli and Celia Cruz are among the luminaries to receive this bizarre tribute to their talent. Don Carlos’ fame is secured. Baltasar and his gnocchi achieve notoriety.
Fast forward to 2009. Taxista Esteban delivers my co-adventurer and me to Don Carlos on a cool fall night.
“I was here for New Year’s,” he says, “The food is good and the place isn’t too touristy.”
I take one look at the celebrity walk of fame at the entrance – and at the steep prices on the menu – and can’t help but question the cabbie’s recommendation. With four kids, a wife who breeds dogs for extra money and a taxi that keeps him behind the wheel 12 hours a day, Esteban must reserve Don Carlos for special occasions only.
Just as I prepare to drag my co-adventurer into another cab in search of more democratic eats, my curiosity about the Golden Gnocchi gets the better of me. How can I walk away from the birthplace of a Buenos Aires food legend?
Gingerly, we cross the restaurant’s threshold. The few locals inside stare as we snag a table beneath a framed, autographed soccer jersey belonging to Boca Juniors star Martín Palermo.
I finger the fraying linen in my lap and study the autographed portraits of the rich and famous. A salad called Dynasty (with peaches, gruyere cheese, cream, chicken, and palm hearts) greets me when I open the menu.
My thoughts stray to Ernest Hemingway and his s**t detector. What if the literary giant had applied this tool to restaurants as well as writing? Where would Don Carlos end up?
Only the gnocchi can tell us.
My co-adventurer and I stare at the menu’s gnocchi page for a good 15 minutes, determined to beat a path to the best combination of dumpling and sauce. Potato or spinach? Traditional or soufflé? Bolognese, four-cheese, Alfredo, pesto or one of the other ten sauces on offer?
A black-vested waiter takes our order and is back in flash with two bowls of soufflé-style spinach gnocchi – one with wild mushroom cream sauce and the other doused with olive oil, garlic, fresh rosemary and button mushrooms.
The gnocchi – made with egg whites rather than potato – are feather-light. They would melt in my mouth if not for the sand in the semi-hydrated wild mushrooms in their cream sauce.
Meanwhile, on my co-adventurer’s side of the table, the dumplings are just as delicate, but so porous that they soak up all of their olive oil; rosemary, garlic and mushrooms dry out at the bottom of his bowl, trying helplessly to cling to the pasta.
These are good gnocchi – some of the best I’ve eaten in Buenos Aires, in fact. But if a place is going to wager its fame on its dumplings, the sauce should live up to the pasta. Especially at forty pesos a plate. And especially in the cradle of the Golden Gnocchi.
Note: If you want partake in the tradition of eating gnocchi on the 29th and witness the Golden Gnocchi awards, Don Carlos will be passing the dumpling to Argentine actress Ana María Picchio this Friday, May 29th. Reservations are a good idea.