When you think of Italian food, you probably think of things like chicken piccata, veal parmesan, and pasta. Lots and lots of pasta. In my experience, one dish that goes under the radar is gnocchi (pronounced: no-key). As a result, I thought I’d explore gnocchi a bit more. You never know, maybe this will entice you to add gnocchi to your rotation—either at home, or at your favorite Italian spot.

You know how much I enjoy Italian food? So much, that my wife and I served it at our wedding. And it didn’t just happen to be Italian food because that’s the type of cuisine the banquet hall served. In fact, we didn’t have our wedding at a banquet hall at all. We sought out a restaurant with great food that happened to have event space. From my perspective, an event only needs two things to make it a success in the eyes of most guests: 1) Great food and drink; and 2) Solid entertainment. So, we prioritized food, and everything else fell into place. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Hungry people are grumpy people. Satiated people are content. Well-satiated people, who have had their taste buds tantalized, are happy. That’s at least how I operate. Wait, is that weird?

Regardless, on our special day, when we wanted everything to be right, we prioritized food, and we went with Italian. And you know what was on our menu? Sure, we had staples like salad, chicken parmesan, lasagna, and chicken saltimbocca. But of all the pasta dishes we could have selected to round out our meal—fettuccine alfredo, rigatoni bolognese, spaghetti with meatballs (a la “Lady and the Tramp”)—we went with gnocchi instead. My wife, actually, was the driving force behind this choice, and what a choice it was! Still, it was a dark horse pick. Unconventional, but still classic. Far from overdone (culturally, not culinarily), it was an original choice without being weird or pretentious.

Still, I didn’t grow up on gnocchi, and until meeting my wife, I never was around anyone that made it, or even ordered it. If you’re like I was, you might be thinking, wait, so what’s gnocchi? To answer that question, and some others, I thought I’d check in with two chefs from two excellent Chicago Italian restaurants—Doug Psaltis, Chef/Partner at RPM Italian and RPM Steak (Lettuce Entertain You concepts from Bill and Giuliana Rancic), and John Coletta, Founding Chef at Quartino (Gibsons Restaurant Group) and author of a new cookbook, “Risotto and Beyond.”

First, here are some highlights from what Chef Psaltis at RPM had to share:

What is gnocchi?

Gnocchi are small Italian dumplings traditionally made from flour and cooked potato. They are rolled and cut into bite-size pieces before being quickly cooked in boiling water to reveal light and fluffy little dumplings or “pillows.”

Are certain varieties considered more “official” or “traditional” than others?

People are probably the most familiar with potato gnocchi, making it more “traditional” in that sense. However, there are several regional variations of gnocchi, depending on where you are or who you ask in Italy. Gnocchi alla Romana, for instance, is a Roman-style dish made with semolina. It’s first cooked on the stovetop, then rolled flat, cut into disks, layered into a baking dish and finished in the oven. There’s also ricotta gnocchi and Sardinian gnocchi—the latter, also known as malloreddus, is made with durum wheat semolina and a pinch of saffron, leading to a denser, more toothsome pasta.

How does RPM do gnocchi?

We make a classic potato gnocchi using the best ingredients possible, which allows us to keep the dish rather simple in its preparation. Currently it’s served with Caciocavallo cheese—an earthy and complex cheese with slight fruit undertones—and fresh cracked black pepper, but we rotate the preparation of the dish every so often. In the fall, we change it up with housemade Berkshire fennel pork sausage and Tuscan kale served in a parmesan brodo. A winter variation is with cranberries, turnips, and fennel.

Know Your Gnocchi

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Next, here’s what Chef Coletta from Quartino had to say:

How long has gnocchi been around?

Gnocchi were present 9,000 years before the birth of Christ. Originally, in fact, the gnocchi were simply doughs of cold water and flour, with a more or less rounded shape, which were subsequently cooked in boiling water. The term gnocco, however, means “node” and refers more to something hard, just like the “knuckles” of the fingers.

When did potato gnocchi hit the scene?

The story begins in the sixteenth century, when potatoes were imported from America. These potatoes were then mixed into the wheat flour and water mixture, shaped, boiled, and tossed with butter and parmigiano reggiano.

How has gnocchi changed since then?

Today there are many variations for the gnocchi dough, such as cornmeal, wheat flour, semolina flour, and often other ingredients such as pumpkin or spinach are also combined, but the classic potato gnocchi are a dish present in the gastronomic traditions from every region of Italy.

How is gnocchi made?

The classic potato gnocchi is made by gently kneading cooked potatoes, wheat flour, and eggs. The mixture is rolled into logs and cut into small oval or round shapes. The formed gnocchi are plunged into boiling water, salted, and removed once they float to the top of the water line. Often meat sugos, ragus, and a variety of regional specific preparation accompany the airy gnocchi.

When is gnocchi served during the meal?

Traditionally speaking, [it’s served during] the pasta course known as a primi, [which] is served prior to the main meat or fish course.

So, there you have it, right from the minds of the maestros! I like how gnocchi uses potato as a primary ingredient. I don’t know about you, but I rarely encounter potatoes at many conventional Italian-American restaurants. This gives gnocchi an edge. As a potato-rich dumpling, it stands out from the crowd. Still, if you’re not that into potato, from the look of it, there are numerous varieties, both in terms of ingredients, and dough, that you can try. I’d like to offer a special thank you to the chefs, and to the folks at Lettuce Entertain You/RPM, and Gibsons Restaurant Group/Quartino for contributing to this article. Next time you’re in the Windy City, and craving Italian, I highly recommend checking out their restaurants. Buon appetito!

Related Video: How to Form Gnocchi

Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Greg is a Chicago guy who likes to cook, dine, and help others navigate their food choices. Why? Because food is an integral part of our lives, he's the best version of himself when he's well fed, and he wants to help others more consistently make a routine activity into something special. When he's not writing, he's watching sports, searching out ways to laugh, offering unsolicited-yet-rational positions on social media, handling the domestic responsibilities of a husband and dad, and figuring out his next meal.
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