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All About the Gnocchi

Regional variations on the classic Italian dumpling are making their way onto American menus

Author Charu Suri Photography Ed Anderson (Chronicle Books, 2015)

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PORTLAND, OREGON – Chef Jenn Louis, co-owner of Lincoln Restaurant and Sunshine Tavern in Portland, Oregon, fell in love with gnocchi, the Italian comfort food classic, while backpacking through Europe after college. Most Americans know about the classic Northern Italian gnocchi di patate, a hearty dumpling made from flour, water, and potato, but she found that this menu staple barely scratched the surface of the world of Italian dumplings.

Years later, Louis traveled to Italy with her husband to research her first cookbook, Pasta by Hand, which was released this spring and focuses on regional hand-shaped pastas. “Each person I interviewed and cooked with had a different notion about what was and was not gnocchi,” Louis recalls. In the process, she came up with her own definition of Italian dumplings: handcrafted nubs of dough that are baked, poached, simmered or sauteed. 

After years of collecting recipes from Italian chefs (and nonnas), she published her book. Varieties of gnocchi she catalogs therein include Tuscan zucchini gnudi, which swap out potato for grated zucchini and silky ricotta; gnocchi ossolani, from Piedmont, made with potato, squash, and chestnut flour and served with alpine pasture butter; and Ligurian chickpea gnocchetti. She always includes at least one variety on her menus at any given time. 

Other chefs are following suit. At LA’s Alimento, Zach Pollack offers a riff on Tyrolean canederli (akin to Central European knödel), made with beets and alpine bitto cheese and served with poppy seeds and brown butter. At D.C.’s Iron Gate, chef Tony Chittum serves up gnocchi alla Romana, made with local semolina flour shaped into biscuitlike disks and baked, then dressed with black walnuts, balsamic vinegar, and blue cheese.
“It’s about bringing Italy to our guests,” says Chittum, “but with all locally sourced ingredients.”

Meanwhile, at The Factory Kitchen in the Los Angeles Arts District, Italian-born chef Angelo Auriana says that he’s seeing more regional variations Stateside. His menu includes a favorite from the Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna regions, gnocchi malfatti (Italian for “badly made”), composed of ricotta and semolina and served by Auriana with lamb shoulder sugo. 

No matter the variety, gnocchi’s continued appeal comes down to its status as one of Italy’s top comfort foods. Florentine chef Fabio Ugoletti, who recently opened Bettolino Kitchen in Redondo Beach, California—where he fashions pasta pillows from scratch, with less flour to keep it light, and dresses it with chicken, pancetta, and sausage simmered in white wine—says he “grew up making gnocchi once a week with my family. Now I make gnocchi with my daughter. It’s such a simple recipe that we love to make.”

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