Gnocchi fantasies conjure dreams of potato dumplings fluffiness coming undone in the mouth with hardly any dental engagement. Smooth or ridged. Piled high with tomatoes on a Thursday in Rome. Glistening with lightly toasted butter and a crinkle of sage. Oozing with four cheeses. Clinging to a wild boar ragù. Whichever habit clads them, we always imagine them with potatoes at the core.
But while potatoes came to Europe from the Peruvian Andes in the XVI century and didn’t really find a place on the European table until the late 1700’s, the word gnocchi is thought to have ancient etymological roots in the language of the Germanic tribes that invaded northern Italy in the VI century. Knohha or knohil, the term for knot or burl eventually evolved in nocca—knuckle, in other words something tight and roundish, just like a gnocco.
A dish called gnocchi first appears in a XVI century cookbooks by famed chef to the popes Bartolomeo Scappi. It was made with flour, breadcrumbs and water.
For centuries gnocchi found different incarnation in different regions and cultures. Starting from water and whatever flour was locally available, it was a way to give table scraps a new life — simple, inexpensive and filling for the lower classes and enriched with eggs, dairy or meat on the tables of the rich. Some kinds were closer to pasta some to a soft dumpling. They could be served in broth or dry with a sauce. At times they were their own courses and other times a side dish.
Up to the first half of the XX century cookbooks included many versions of gnocchi, and potato dumplings were only an entry in the list.
Today the potato ones have become so prevalent throughout the country that when we say gnocchi we understand it to mean potato gnocchi. But a whole world of gnocchi still exists. Some have found enough popularity to be considered national dishes, others have become locally venerated dishes hardly found outside of their area of origin. Moreover, these Italian dumplings has long enough legs that they continue to inspire modern interpretations by home cooks and professional chefs alike.
Let’s take a stroll through the multiple personalities of one of Italy’s most enduring and endearing culinary treasures. And if you know of other gnocchi I am not mentioning, please let me know. Adventures in Italian food are infinite and there is always something new to learn.
Gnocchi di farina are the original gangsters. Made with flour and water/milk and eggs, they still appear as the occasional specialty in restaurants and in specialized preparations. Older classical cooking national texts like the Artusi or Talismano della Felicità still widely list them.
Gnocchi di patate definitely the popular kids in school, these pillowy bites are made with mostly potatoes and just enough flour to hold them together. Eggs are optional, but truly skilled cooks do without. They have a green version that incorporates fresh spinach. Culinarily it is interesting to notice that gluten should be developed as little as possible with gnocchi and one of the tricks is to mix them while the potatoes are still hot. The heat changes the proteins enough to produce shorter gluten strands and prevent toughness. Potato gnocchi are mostly boiled, sauced and served, though they can also be boiled, placed in a baking dish, dotted with butter and cheese and broiled. Today, versions made with other flours, colored with squid ink, flavored with herbs and powders find fame at the hands of talented and creative young chefs.
Gnocchi alla romana are made with semolina cooked in milk, bound with eggs and scented with nutmeg. Shaped in disk, dusted with parmigiano, dotted with butter it is baked until golden. Unless you’re in Rome, where they are made exactly as described but simply known as gnocchi di semolino. Indeed, older recipe collections define gnocchi alla romana as bread and minced chicken dumplings, but today the name is understood to mean the semolina variety. Contemporary cooks add flavor and color to them, from herbs, to diced vegetables, different cheese and creative sauces. I ate a version to die for that was topped with stewed octopus.
Gnocchi di ricotta either straight or as part of a mixture, are very popular. The best known variety are the Tuscan gnudi — naked — so called because they are in essence naked spinach and ricotta ravioli. Contemporary version of ricotta gnocchi can be made with ingredients like red beets, saffron, ground nuts, herbs.
Gnocchi di zucca are native to Veneto where pumpkin is traditionally grown. As pumpkin and winter squash have become more common throughout Italy, these gnocchi have surged in popularity. I love their sweet and savory profile stemming from the felicitous meeting of sugary pumpkin, nuttily salty parmigiano and fragrant nutmeg.
Kipfel and gnocchi di gries are semolina based, as gries is the word for semolina in Trieste. Gries appears in two versions of gnocchi. Kipfel are prepared with milk butter and cheese, breaded and deep fried then served as an accompaniment to braised meats. Gnocchetti di gries are mixed with parmigiano, butter and eggs, formed in small balls, poached in stock and served as a soup.
Gnocco fritto, a far cry from what we picture as gnocchi, is Emilia Romagna’s ultimate decadent delight. A soft and elastic pizza like dough kneaded with lard is cut in diamonds and deep fried. It puffs and becomes hollow. While still hot enough to melt fat, the gnocco fritto is served with the varied salumi of the area.
Gnocchi di pane are a multi-regional dish, as so many areas have their own traditional version of bread dumplings. The strong presence of catholic traditions in Italian life makes wasting bread sinful and has pushed Italian cooks to find ways to up-cycle leftover bread to the point that it is considered an important ingredient. In the north they are often mixed with milk and butter, sometimes lard. They can be flavored with herbs or bits of ham. One of my favorite versions has bone marrow. Simpler versions can be found with water, a little egg to bind and of course always parmigiano. They are generally served in a broth and their size ranges from hazelnut to small egg.
Canederli are the dumplings of Trentino Alto Adige. Born out of need and ingenuity, canederli are stale bread and milk egg-size dumplings served in a broth or dry with varying sauces. The best known — also called knoedel — come from South Tyrol, the German speaking northeastern area of Trentino and are enriched with speck and cheese. But there are many regional variations that marry the stale bread with other flours, vegetables, potatoes. There are even dessert versions and one made with raised bread dough. My Trentino Alto Adige cookbook lists almost 30 canederli recipes. Interesting to notice is the recurrent use of chives, beets and poppy seeds unique to the northeastern area of Italy.
Gnocchi di susine or albicocche another specialty from Trieste, include both potato and semolina. The dough is closed around a small apricot or plum whose stone has ben swapped out for sugar. Cooked in simmering water they are doused with melted butter and sprinkled with cinnamon scented pan fried breadcrumbs. My aunt from Trieste also uses apricot jam or reconstituted dry prunes.
Gnocchetti de ciadin is found in Veneto and Trentino and especially common in the posh ski resort Cortina d’Ampezzo. They take their name from the wooden basin used to make them. A thick batter of flour eggs and milk is vigorously whisked until it bubbles and foams. Dropped in boiling salted water and cooked until well set, it is then doused in melted butter and local alpine cheeses.
Gnocchi alla parigina a classic dish found in Piemonte and Lombardia, they are made with a pate-a-chou like mixture that is piped in small balls directly into simmering broth then drained and dressed with toasted butter and parmigiano. They are spongily delightful but must be eaten right away or they will quickly turn gummy.
Gnocchi ossolani are a fall specialty from the Val d’Ossola in Lombardia. Mixed with chestnut flour and roasted winter squash, they are cut in small bites and grooved on the tines of a fork. Boiled gently until they float, they are doused with butter and dusted with rich local alpine cheeses.
Gnocchi all’abruzzese are made with flour and/or stale bread and dressed with guanciale and pecorino then seasoned with the local chili peppers.
Gnocchi alla bava or alla piemontese are potato gnocchi drowned in enough fontina to bake into long threads of perfection. In season, they are topped with shaved truffle.
Gnocculi are a Sicilian dish closer to pasta. Mixed with semolina and water, then ridged on a grooved board, they are similar to the cavatelli of Puglia.
Malloreddus aka gnocchetti sardi are also similar to cavatelli, but firmer, slightly smaller and with more pronounced grooves. They can be flavored with saffron, a common spice in Sardinian cuisine.
Gnocchi dolci di latte closely follow the steps of making pastry cream but with a little more flour. They are then cooled, cut in diamonds, deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar. They should be eaten while still warm and a little oozy. They are common in recipe books from Le Marche, but versions are found all over the country. My nanny used to make them during Carnevale. Wherever and whenever, one thing is sure: they deliver untold amounts of joy.