The History of Gnocchi

on March 14, 2013
Fresh Peas with Lettuce and Gnocchi
Mark Boughton Photography / styling: Teresa Blackburn

Gnocchi (NYOH-kee, NOH-kee), as we know them, are plump little lumps of pasta made mostly of potato. But that’s just the tip of the dumpling. Gnocchi’s permutations—past and present—are murkier than minestrone and as territorial as a Mafioso Don.

In early writings, gnocco (singular for gnocchi) is sometimes replaced by maccherone, a generic term for pasta, and a sort of Rosetta Stone for historians attempting to decipher pasta’s tangled past. The Encyclopedia of Pasta by Oretta Zanini De Vita tells us that gnocchi is primal pasta, the ancestor to all manner of noodles. As such, it sort of slips away from tidy definition.

In some parts of Italy, gnocchi was made of fine durum wheat. Elsewhere, it was chestnut, rye, rice, or barley flour. When poverty struck, gnocchi might mean leftovers bound with breadcrumbs. We do know that potatoes came very late to the game and were slow to gain a following. An early recipe for potato gnocchi, circa 1834, calls for just one part potato to three parts flour. It takes another century for modern gnocchi to emerge—wherein potato is the main ingredient, with only enough flour to bind it into a workable dough.

Commercial gnocchi is readily available, but it’s worth the effort to make your own. Essentially, you mix cooked, riced potatoes with egg, then knead in some flour. There’s no special equipment required; the familiar grooved pattern is made with a table fork. Gnocchi’s delicate flavor pairs well with robust sauces, from tomato to pesto to pungent gorgonzola.

By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.

Found in: Ingredient