It’s hard to be innovative when it comes to Christmas food. During the festive season, we all become a little too attached to the traditional turkey and stuffing and mince pies to do anything truly “out there.” The restaurants or supermarkets that do try to be different can end up creating such monstrosities that frankly, they’re offensive to both Jesus and Santa.
However, when someone successfully creates a new Christmas dish that’s comforting, warming, and not objectively weird, it’s worth acknowledging. Which is why I’ve come to Pastaio, a fresh pasta restaurant in Central London, to try chef Stevie Parle’s chestnut, Brussels sprout, Fontina, and sage gnocchi. A dish so cosy and Christmassy that I want to wear it like a potato (?) jumper.
Pastaio lies just off Carnaby Street, which is heaving with shoppers even on a Monday afternoon in late November. The daylight is already disappearing, and the glint of festive lights bathes the street in a twinkly glow. I arrive at the restaurant and meet Parle, who is ready to talk me through the dish.
How did he go about creating the Christmas gnocchi?
“What I'm not considering is, ‘what do Italians eat a Christmas?’” he tells me, straight off the bat. “That's not really a consideration, because the answer to that is tortellini and brodo. It's capon. It's stuff that isn't relevant to our British sensibility at Christmas.”
For Parle, the flavours that are important at Christmas are the ones familiar to us—which is probably why the dish screams “pls eat me” to my half-Italian but very much mostly British genes.
“What I'm thinking is, ‘what do I like at Christmas? What did I have when I was a kid at Christmas?’” Parle continues. “This restaurant isn't an exercise in authenticity, it's not an anthropological study of Italian cooking traditions—it's just [that] everyone loves pasta, and Christmas is Brussels sprouts, chestnuts, and potatoes.”
He’s not wrong. The dish takes the classic Christmas flavours of sage, chestnuts, and Brussels sprouts and combines them into a carby, buttery, Italian creation. The Fontina cheese is nutty and mild, and coats the gnocchi just enough to give extra flavour, but not so much that it becomes like a sauce. It’s a simple combination of elements that are evocative without being overpowering.
I wander over to the kitchen to watch Pastaio chef Alessio make the dish. The gnocchi were prepared earlier that morning, so they sit like precious little dumplings covered in flour, ready to be chucked into a pan of boiling water. After Alessio fries the sage leaves in butter and removes them from the pan, he cooks the Brussels sprouts in the same butter, until they have a crisp, brown edge. Once the gnocchi has been boiled, he throws them into the pan along with the chestnuts, and coats both in more butter. Quickly, he plates up, and grates over the Fontina.
“It's comforting,” Parle tells me, surveying the dish. “Pretty much with everything I ever cook, I want it to make you feel good. I’m not that interested in it being challenging.”
“The Fontina really works,” he continues. “It's quite savoury, it gives it a kick, it's got that really nice mountain cheese taste that I like. It's a little bit apres-ski—though I've never been skiing in my life.”
Apres-ski is one way of consuming the dish, but the chestnut and Brussels sprout gnocchi is also perfect for using up leftovers, or to sooth a hangover after an ill-advised Baileys binge. It is not, however, Parle tells me, to be eaten as part of the actual Christmas meal.
“I don't think you should have a starter for Christmas lunch,” he says, shaking his head. “It's just not right. You're supposed to get on with the main event.”
When would he eat the dish, then? “It's something you can make out of leftovers. If you have Brussels sprouts leftover, and you have chestnuts around, and even if you have mashed potato—you always have to have mash at Christmas.”
Mashed potato at Christmas? Parle and I briefly argue about this. (“You always have to have mashed and roast [potatoes] at Christmas,” he insists. I remain unconvinced.)
After this brief potato hiatus, we get back to the dish:
“It's something you can make if you have quite an early Christmas lunch, and you want to have something late,” Parle continues. “If you're really hungover on Boxing Day, it's perfect because it's rich and works with leftovers. You could also definitely put bacon or pancetta in it, but I like to keep it veggie. I think there's enough going on that it didn't need it.”
Despite having Italian roots, this chestnut and Brussels sprouts gnocchi is proudly British—much like Pastaio itself. “We're a restaurant that is at least as British as it is Italian,” says Parle. “I actually think in Britain, we own pasta a bit now. It is a kind of national dish.”
“I think [the Brussel sprouts and chestnut gnocchi] really sums up that this is a British-Italian thing,” he concludes. “You know you wouldn't get this in Italy. I just don't even know if they have sprouts.”
Looking for clarification, Parle calls over Alessio.
"Hey, Alessio! Do you have sprouts in Italy? Or no?”
Alessio walks over, obligingly. "Yeah,” he tells us, “but for Christmas, we eat a lot of broccoli. It is because on the 24th of December we don't eat meat. We eat fish and vegetables. And if you're from Rome, there's a dish called fritto misto, and then broccoli fried, artichokes, potatoes, and cod. This is your main course.”
I jump in and ask Alessio what his Italian family would think of this dish.
"I don't think they'd like it," he laughs. “I'm sorry, but Chef [gesturing to Parle] knows my opinion.”
There we have it. Proof of a truly British (gnocchi) dish.