A brief history and evolution of the now-popular potato dumpling.
In the U.S., there are a handful of Italian dishes so common (spaghetti, ravioli, lasagna, to name a few) that one would almost think they were actually American. And while gnocchi doesn't make that list quite yet—as of 2015 it is only at the second of four stages in Datassential’s Menu Adoption Cycle—it’s not for lack of trying.
“There’s enough going on with the Food Network and travel channels that people are familiar with gnocchi now,” says Chef Walter Pisano of Seattle-based Tulio Ristorante. “I think the biggest challenge for people is how to pronounce it.” (It’s nyawk-kee, for the record.)
While the exact roots of gnocchi are hard to pin down, it’s said to have originated in the Middle East using semolina dough instead of potatoes. The recipe was then picked up and brought back to Italy by the Romans, creating the classic gnocchi alla Romana, which are semolina-based dumplings mixed with parmesan, milk, and eggs, then baked.
Because the cooler climates of northern Italy were more suited to growing potatoes than grain, peasants altered the Roman recipe by substituting potatoes for semolina. Known as gnocchi di patate, the now-famous dish is made from potatoes that have been cooked, peeled, and riced, then mixed with water, flour, eggs, and sometimes cheese and nutmeg.
Don Odiorne, vice president of foodservice for the Idaho Potato Commission, says there are three main techniques for cooking the potato: Peel it, cut it into chunks, and boil until fork-tender; boil it whole with the skin on, then quickly peel off the skin before cutting it up and ricing; or poke holes in it and bake to remove some of the potato’s moisture. Odiorne—whose nickname is Dr. Potato—says the latter method is often best for producing a dry potato that doesn’t turn gummy when making gnocchi dough. He also says Idaho Russet Burbank potatoes are a high-starch, low-moisture variety ideal for making gnocchi.
Though traditionally served with a tomato or light cream or butter sauce, gnocchi’s neutral flavor makes it the perfect backdrop for pairing with an almost endless array of sauces, spices, vegetables, and even proteins. It can also be boiled, baked, or fried; frozen and cooked to order; or served as a side dish, appetizer, or full bowl for a pasta course.
At Siena Tavern in Chicago, former “Top Chef” contestant Fabio Viviani’s gnocchi is served with a Grana Padano cream sauce, roasted pancetta, and crispy brown butter sage. “It’s this light, creamy, cheesy sauce with cubes of crispy pancetta and this pillowy, super-soft gnocchi,” Viviani says.
Though potatoes are the most common starch used to make gnocchi di patate, other varieties of potatoes, pumpkins, and squash can be used to craft the dough as well. At Tulio, Chef Pisano uses sweet potatoes to make a dough mixed with eggs, flour, parmesan, and nutmeg. It’s then sautéed in butter with fresh sage for crunchiness, and garnished with mascarpone cheese for a hint of sweetness.
Gnocchi can also be colored with ingredients like turmeric, curry, and black squid ink for an untraditional take on the classic dish. “That’s going to change people’s perception [of gnocchi],” Odiorne says. “They look like a neutral color, but if you bring that color up and add a little flavor to it, too, it could do really well.”
Beet powder is mixed into the dough at Siena Tavern to create a bright purple hue for a specialty dish popular during occasions like Valentine’s Day. “The flavor stays very similar, but the preparation is different,” Viviani says.
For chefs seeking a departure from the classic potato or starch gnocchi, there’s another common variety of Italian gnocchi—called gnocchi di ricotta—that mixes low-moisture ricotta cheese with flour and egg to create a dough that’s rolled, cut, and boiled. At Italian fast casual Animale in Chicago, Chef Cameron Grant combines both potato and ricotta to craft its signature gnocchi recipe.
Customers at Animale are then given a choice of five sauces with which to dress their gnocchi. Grant says the Carbonara Luigi is a popular choice, featuring pancetta, mushrooms, snap peas, and a “sunny egg” for extra texture. The Ragu di Carne is a hearty choice featuring a mix of beef and sausage, mirepoix, herbs, and tomatoes, while another much-loved sauce—the Pomodoro—is cooked for three hours with emulsified olive oil. “Having that basil with a little chile flake kick and some fresh mozzarella is really nice,” Grant says of the Pomodoro sauce.
As protein prices continue to rise, Odiorne says, gnocchi is often presented as an inexpensive appetizer or pasta course that offsets higher costs by using small amounts of protein or just vegetables in the recipe. “It’s been awakened again by chefs who are trying to find ways to serve less protein,” Odiorne says. So instead of a meat-and-potatoes approach, many chefs and restaurants are preparing potato gnocchi with a petite portion of meat or seafood on the side.
Because it’s a heavier dish, gnocchi is most popular in winter or cooler climates, Viviani says. “All of our restaurants serve more gnocchi during winter than during summer,” he adds. “When it’s colder, you tend to eat more carbohydrates, heavier sauces and pasta, hot plates. Even if you want to utilize a light sauce, it’s still a very heavy, rich dish.”
However, Grant says all it takes is a little acid, bright colors, and some texture to lighten up gnocchi. He says the dish lends itself to lighter flavors and ingredients, from Meyer lemon zest and fresh asparagus to young goat or pecorino cheese.
It’s also a dish that Pisano says lends itself to seasonality. In spring, for example, a lighter gnocchi can be prepared using vegetables like peas, fresh rosemary, and lamb or braised rabbit. In winter, he says, it can be served as a more savory dish with a meat-based ragù. “The great thing about gnocchi,” Pisano adds, “is that it’s a canvas to a lot of different sauces depending on the season.”