Traditionally made by the man of the house, gnocchi are a classic part of Italian cuisine, particularly in the north of Italy where this simple dish originated.
It is thought that gnocchi first appeared as part of a pre-Lenten celebration, however there’s speculation surrounding its name. Some historians think it comes from nocca, the Italian word for knuckle, others speculate that the name derives from nocchio, meaning a knot in wood, while there are others who imply that the name comes from gnoccho, meaning stupid.
The ingredients needed to make gnocchi may be simplistic, but the dish is far from stupid, in fact it takes experience and instinct to master the preparation of these fluffy pillows of potato.
There are many recipes that claim that, if you follow them to the letter, you’ll create the perfect gnocchi, but it’s not that easy; each batch made requires the cook to be knowledgeable regarding the amount of flour to use. It’s here that instinct and experience are required as the correct amount of flour depends solely upon the amount of starch in the potatoes, and this can fluctuate between 200 to 350 grams of flour per kilogram of potato.
Gnocchi are not exclusive to Italy; it seems that many nations have their own versions of the light, airy dumplings, and even different Italian regions have their own individual versions, some that stem from a time before potatoes were available, when they’d be made from chestnut flour, cheese and egg, and, in some parts of the country, from a pumpkin and breadcrumb mix. In Tuscany, you’ll find gnocchi nudi (naked gnocchi), dumplings made from ricotta cheese and spinach, while a speciality from Rome is semolina gnocchi, topped with cheese and baked.
So versatile are gnocchi that you often find the dough mixed with additional flavours like spinach, squash or saffron. But true connoisseurs declare that they are best made simply from the finest ‘floury’ potatoes you can find and eaten with just melted butter and a sprinkling of parmesan.
Thursday in Rome is traditionally “gnocchi day” and the trattorias in the capital serve up huge quantities of the dish, topped with a multitude of sauces ranging from a simple tomato to an indulgent truffle sauce. It has also been said that Florence is the home of the infamous strozzapreti (priest stranglers), a type of gnocchi so good that gluttonous priests have been known to choke from eating it too quickly.
The secret to creating perfect gnocchi is to keep the potatoes as dry as possible, so always boil them in their skins and peel them while they’re still hot from the pan. Chef Giorgio Locatelli dries his boiled and peeled potatoes in a warm oven before putting them through a ricer, while some top chefs choose to bake their potatoes rather than boil them for a more intense flavour.
Gnocchi is a perfect example of peasant food that has found its way onto the menus of the country’s top restaurants. It’s inexpensive and filling and, although the origins of its name may be open to debate, one thing that no one can dispute is that gnocchi has to be crowned the king of comfort food.