Why they say [il] gnocco fritto

If you come down into Tuscany from Reggio Emilia and ask for "lo" gnocco fritto, everyone will immediately know that you’re not Tuscan. No one in Reggio Emilia goes anywhere near the much more common article "il" gnocco fritto. If you pair “lo” with a gnocco fritto outside of the confines of the Reggio Emilia, out come the pens of the pedants, ready to strike through the ‘error’. But in truth, there’s hardly any consensus anywhere else.

For the moment, we won’t get bogged down in the manifold varieties of fried dough in Italy, which are all very similar in substance, even though they change name over a distance of just a few miles. In Parma, the people nurse a centuries-old (and not entirely ridiculous) superiority complex with regards to their "blockhead" neighbours in Reggio Emilia with their "torta fritta" (fried cake). This side of the river Enza, the name torta fritta sounds absurd, but it reminds us that centuries ago people used to dust their fried dough with a covering of sugar. In Bologna they use the name "crescente", irritating the Modenese with their crescentine, which the rest of Italy knows as "tigelle".

To be honest, that part of Italy that unfolds either side of the Via Emilia has more to unite it than divide it. But old, tribal loyalties run deep and die hard, if they die at all.

Nevertheless, it’s worth knowing that this humble dough, made of water and flour and quickly fried in lard, really kicked off everything. Lard, in fact, was not used as a frying agent in Italy before the Dark Ages; it only entered the Po Valley with the Lombards, whose nomadic social architecture lent itself to the rearing of pigs. Without them, we would never have seen a pot a boiling lard.

Let’s go back to the top. The linguistics scholar will point out that in the old, gothic-inflected Italian of the Middle Ages, there was no distinction between the masculine definite article (il/lo) and the indefinite article (un/uno), but that the former clumped together into an "al", corresponding to "il". It’s an article that has come down to our times in various Italian vernaculars; “el” too. So it may be a grammatical mistake, according to the grammarians, but it’s a deep-rooted cultural inheritance, with no little substance. What the brightest sparks might call a "solecism".

As for us who cook and eat "il" gnocco fritto – well, I’m sure we can deal with it.