I’ve been writing for the Napa Valley Register for nine years. In that time, I’ve had only two stories that resulted in my inbox being bombarded with emails. The most recent of these incidences was last month when I published my column about malfatti.
Who knew these tasty, little dumplings could cause such a stir?
Don’t get me wrong, I love getting reader emails (so, please, keep them coming!). I just should have known that this topic would be a bit controversial. When I wrote the column, I purposely tried to keep the background of malfatti in Napa vague. As with most local lore, these types of stories get passed down from person to person, from generation to generation, and over the years, they get tweaked and exaggerated until there are multiple iterations and no one is 100 percent sure of what really happened.
This can be frustrating for a journalist, because how can you ever know fact from fiction? So, I went with the best-known version of the story, which has been reported previously in several publications. Depot Restaurant owner Teresa Tamburelli came up with the recipe on the spot when a baseball team visited and she didn’t have enough ingredients for ravioli. In a pinch, she created these little dumplings with the ravioli filling and called them malfatti, meaning “mistake” or “poorly made.”
I can’t go back in time and ask Tamburelli herself, but my column prompted enough response that I was inspired to pull together these reader stories in an attempt to get to the bottom of what David Fazio aptly called “The Malfatti Mystery” in the subject of his email.
Made in Italy
I mentioned in the previous column that many believe malfatti was actually invented in Italy, which wouldn’t be too surprising considering it’s the origin of most beloved kinds of pasta. Several readers wrote in to confirm this.
“As it may be romantic to believe that malfatti was made by Teresa Tamburelli for a visiting baseball team,” Fazio’s email began, “she certainly didn’t invent them.” He went on to say that malfatti has been around for centuries and his family’s own recipe dates to the late 1800s (I asked for it and he wouldn’t give it to me, but he did kindly offer to make it for me). Another reader has fond memories of her “Nona” from Northern Italy making malfatti every Christmas Eve.
Fazio also pointed me to a 2015 article on the history of gnocchi from Saveur Magazine, which traced malfatti’s history all the way back to the Renaissance, and likely even earlier. The writer added: “The word malfatti “means ‘badly made’ and is still the name that Tuscans apply to their spinach and ricotta dumplings, gnudi.” Gnudi are pillow-like dumplings made with ricotta cheese (and sometimes spinach) instead of potato.
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The Unsung Hero
But the biggest mystery is how malfatti came and rose to such popularity in Napa of all places.
One reader, who preferred not to be named, wrote in to say that her great-great-grandmother, not Tamburelli, was the first to bring malfatti from Italy to Napa. “Over the years the lore has been passed about the making of the malfatti as a ‘mistake’ by Mrs. Tamburelli,” she wrote. “However; my father still remembers them being made long before she started working at the restaurant.”
Her great-great-grandmother was Virginia Tonari Ferrogiaro. Virginia immigrated to Napa from Northern Italy and she and her husband purchased the Depot Hotel in 1881 where she made malfatti.
This story was echoed in another email from Patti Cowger, who knows Virginia’s great-grandson, Napan Robert Zeller of Hoff & Zeller law firm. “It always bothered me that Virginia Ferrogiaro never got recognized,” Cowger said in her email. “SHE is the first person to introduce malfatti to the public.”
According to Cowger, who wrote about this on her blog for her interior design business PLC Interiors, the Depot was purchased by the Tamburellis in 1925 (roughly 45 years later). Tamburelli also made malfatti and eventually passed her recipe down to the future part-owner and chef of the Depot, Clemente Cittoni.
As for that story about the baseball team? Likely untrue, Cowger said. If there was a baseball team—or, was it a football team or a group of politicians?—the malfatti recipe certainly wasn’t made up on the fly.
“The question is whether Virginia passed down the recipe to Teresa or did Teresa make her own version,” Cowger continued. “She and her sisters were also born in northern Italy, so she may have had her own family recipe.”
We may never know for sure, so I counter Cowger’s all-important question with another: Clemente’s or Lawler’s?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.