The Reason Gnocchi Doesn't Count As Pasta

Gnocchi is an Italian dish that's often featured alongside pasta on restaurant menus. The medium-sized round morsels are also typically served with tomato sauce, Alfredo sauce, or pesto sauce — again, just like pasta. So, naturally, you may think they are another kind of fancy noodle. But gnocchi is a totally different dish.


The simple reason is that gnocchi is mostly made with potatoes, whereas most pastas are heavily wheat flour-based with eggs or water (although gnocchi still includes a little flour for structure). This means gnocchi technically is actually more of a dumpling, a more broad group of dishes made with any kind of cooked dough. 

While people sometimes assume dumplings need a filling of some kind, and other people believe dumplings require leavening agents,that's not necessary to make the noodle qualify. It just needs to be dough that's boiled, fried, or steamed, which means the category can cover everything from soup dumplings, dessert dumplings, and even gnocchi. 

The many faces of pasta and where gnocchi fits in

There are several hundred different kinds of pasta to choose from and enjoy, from stringy spaghetti to flat linguini to bow-tie farfalle. All these different names refer to the shape of the pasta, and to be fair, a noodle's shape does influence what sauces go well with it: Thin shapes go well with light sauces and flatter pastas go better with richer sauces where they're able to absorb more of it. Otherwise, they're all generally made with the same ingredients. The flour is nearly always semolina (made from durum wheat), but all kinds of flours that are wheat-based can all do the trick.


But, the one thing this category of food doesn't include is potatoes. That being said, there are some less common versions of gnocchi made without potatoes, although they're still called "gnocchi" and they keep roughly the same shape. Ricotta gnocchi is made with cheese instead of potatoes, which is still more of a cheese dumpling than pasta. Roman gnocchi is made from semolina flour and would be closer to regular pasta, but now we're just splitting angel hairs (also known as capellini pasta).

What else doesn't qualify as pasta?

As discussed, the word pasta usually refers to Italian-style, wheat-based noodles. But, not all noodles are pasta. The ingredient originally came from China, and while some noodles are wheat-based (like pasta), other kinds are made with rice. And then there's the transparent glass noodles made with starches, such as mung beans. Among popular kinds of noodles, Japanese ramen uses wheat and an alkaline mineral called kansui, while the noodles used in Vietnamese pho are made from rice. You've also got Korean japchae, the type of noodle made from sweet potatoes.


Most of these noodles are long and slender, unlike the more round shape of gnocchi. However, gnocchi does have a similar relative that is considered to be half-pasta: a German dish called spaetzle. Spaetzle or spätzleis  sort of a mashup between pasta and dumplings, a clumpy, short egg noodle made with wet and runny dough. The end result gives it the chewy texture of a dumpling with mostly pasta ingredients, making it an odd addition to the pasta/noodle/dumpling family, much like gnocchi.