The answer is a dumpling that’s as old as pasta itself. That’s Gnocchi – made most times nowadays with potato, but with variants assembled from semolina, regular wheat flour, chestnut flour, polenta, breadcrumbs (like Knödel) and, in Lombardy, they make theirs with pumpkin. Sometimes the gnocchi are flavoured with spinach, cheeses and even cacao, the latter still served as a savoury dish.


Alan Davidson’s life’s work, his splendid ‘Oxford Companion to Food’ based largely on the many learned papers presented at the Oxford Food Symposium over 25 years or so, talks of references to gnocchi dating back to the Middle Ages with mention even in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Other references I’ve read go back further for 2000 years to Ancient Rome where it’s recorded they made theirs from a porridge of semolina and salt. Obviously none were made this early with potato because it was many centuries later before Europe would celebrate the Gnocchi di Patate.

With contemporary news full of horsey tales and food adulteration on a massive scale, let’s not forget the Middle Ages had its scammers too. German food law dates back to then and today Germany probably leads the world for purity of its wines & beers, bread & würst, cheeses and more.

There’s something about gnocchi that tells you it’s an old food – a food with history of the best kind.

Baccaccio refered to giant gnocchi in his masterwork, Il Decameron, and was he not Italy’s ‘cousin’ to England’s Geoffrey Chaucer – a point registered by the great Pasolini who made a trilogy of Decameron, Canterbury Tales and the Arabian Nights between 1971/73. Pasolini’s Decameron I’ve seen at least four times yet I’d no idea he also made a film based on the  Canterbury Tales – a favourite of mine since schooldays.

Having only visited the city of Verona twice, I’ve no personal experience of the Veronese festival of gnocchi – held on their last Friday of Carnival and promisingly named Bacanal del Guoco.

Potato based gnocchi is today the most popular. It is said to have emerged none too long after the potato arrived in Italy in the second half of the 16th century. It seems most of these early potatoes were floury varieties with the waxy, yellow fleshed delicacies coming later – I’ll stop there because I’m no expert beyond this point. Follow the work of 18th century scientist and nutritionist, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier if the potato intrigues you – the Paris Metro even has a station on Line 3 named in his honour.

To enjoy gnocchi fully is to make your own – and simple it is.

Start with a kilo of floury potatoes – Maris Piper, Desiré, King Edward’s are the easiest to source in England – the Italians have others.  Only a few retailers care to talk about floury – the term is seen as old fashioned compared to more fashionable waxy varieties.

You all know the story about the neighbour asking someone to get them King Edward’s potatoes when they went to the shop. “Tell him to get his own” was the reply.

First cook the potatoes in their skins (washed too, even though the bag may say they are already cleaned) in well salted water set at a soft rolling boil.

When cooked – drain and allow them to cool enough to handle comfortably to skin each potato. Some will break – the larger ones – but that’s no problem because next you will mash them, but mash them dry. Note here that the very best mashed potato can only be made by boiling in their skins and peeling in this way – more work, but worth every minute. Your efforts will be rewarded at table.

I use a mouli-legumes here with the widest disc – otherwise diligent forking is fine too. A traditional masher is the least good as it will always leave lumps in the mixture and for gnocchi, the potatoes must be smooth textured. Another method is to mash the peeled potatoes and then pass them through a sieve using the back of a wooden spoon to push through every last morsel.  Best of all is to use a potato ricer, but again it’s hardly used tool in most domestic kitchens – in my book therefore, an indulgence.

Next add a beaten egg to the potato mixture (approximately 1 fresh egg per 700-800g of cooked potato – they will have lost weight due to cooking and skinning). Then by hand begin working in flour – plain white flour and, for best results, what the Italians call ‘Tipo OO’, the durum wheat grade used for pasta.

Never, ever employ a food mixer otherwise you’ll end up with wallpaper paste in seconds. Remember always that your hands are the best tool in the kitchen – and can’t be replicated with machines.

You will use around 100-120g flour, although I prefer you keep on turning and mixing in the flour until the dough becomes manageable, meaning until it stops sticking to your fingers like glue.

Cut into sections and roll into a snake of about 2.5 cms diameter or slightly less – flour on the table top helps and brings more flour to the gnocchi.

With a dough cutter, back of knife or spatula begin making your gnocco by cutting through every 1-2 cms from end to end. With flour on your hand, fork each gnocco into shape. The fork tines are not obligatory – just stylish and in some places traditional.

Best to then cook them immediately, although they will keep in the ‘fridge for a few hours – best not overnight as any mixture of potatoes can turn an unsightly grey colour.

Bring your widest pan of water to the boil – salt and add the gnocchi – don’t overfill the pan as the gnocchi might stick one to the other. The gnocchi will, as if by magic, begin floating to the surface in just a minute or two – remove one and taste. If to your pleasure, then remove with a slotted spoon to each serving plate.

Then they are ready to be dressed. Home-made gnocchi should be light and delicate – so better not add them to the sauce as you would and should with pasta.

A fresh tomato Sugo, melted butter & sage, a fine Pesto, Salsa di Noci (walnut sauce from Liguria), or whatever takes your fancy. Personally I think a meat Ragú is over-powering, but you may disagree. Just be sure to have your sauce ready to go as the gnocchi needs to be served pronto. Parmesan and black pepper obviously always best offered at table.

Our best gnocchi experience came from Venice – made every morning in a pasticcheria on the corner of the Calle Lunga as it joins Campo San Barnaba (Dorsoduro).  Theirs were tiny – half the size of mine – probably no bigger than a sugar lump, They’re called, not surprisingly, Gnocchetti. Sprinkled with white polenta flour to bring them home to cook, they still had to be prised apart when we got back to our rented apartment just a few minutes away across the canal on the western end of Guidecca.

I mentioned gnocchi made with pumpkin.  The method is the same as with potato and the dish is a speciality of Mantova (Mantua) where they like the sweet/savoury balance – eg their famous large Tortelli di Zucca. These babies are over-sized ravioli’s filled with mashed pumpkin & crushed almond Amaretti and finished warm butter infused with fried sage leaves – a great dish when served in that elegant Medieval city with its rich food heritage.

It was in Mantova, at the elegant Ristorante Il Cigno, that they brought a foot stool to side of our table for my wife to rest her hand bag. The city is also home to one of Italy’s finest family run meat companies – Levoni – serious food people who I’ve known since the early 80’s.

The Levoni pre-cotto (pre-cooked) Zampone and Cotechino would be for me among the best – look for them in your local Italian shop. Better still, ask your Italian shop to stock them. I will tell the story of century old Levoni another time once I have again visited Mantova and Modena.

My method above for gnocchi was an informal Venice-inspired mix of Gino Santin’s ‘Cucina Veneziana’*, the ‘Harry’s Bar Cookbook’* and my own experience, but gnocchi are best made to your taste, not prescribed by a recipe. Rely only on a recipe as a guide. Gnocchi is technique, not a recipe.

I talked of gnocchi being made from various starches. One famous version is French – as if underlining the close early historical ties between the Italian and French cuisines. This is Gnocchi alla Parigina.

The orignal Harry’s Bar on the Calle Vallaresso (San Marco) serves the dish on occasion. These gnocchi are made from choux pastry and baked for 25-30 minutes in a Béchamel sauce topped with grated Parmesan. It is, says Arrigo Cipriani, essential that “everyone is sitting at table before you take them out of the oven, otherwise the choux gnocchi will fall” – and thus their magnificence be lost.

Gnocchi alla Parigina might be high art, potato gnocchi egalitarian – the simpler they are served, the more the gnocchi are the heroes of the plate and palate.