Italy's Comfort Food: Gnocchi alla Sorrentina
Updated: Sep 3
How did Gnocchi alla Sorrentina become one of Italy’s most coveted comfort foods - when two of the primary ingredients: potatoes and tomatoes were considered poisonous until the mid 1800s?
I hope you have all had a memorable experience with Gnocchi alla Sorrentina -
I do, from a dinner in Sorrento in 1986 - yes it was memorable! The gnocchi just melted in my mouth, the flavor of the tomato sauce was divine - only rivaled by the mozzarella melted on top. It’s understandable how this became a comfort food for Italians across the peninsula…but how did that happen?
Is it the name? I don’t think so, there is nothing special about the name. It isn’t even really clear what the name comes from, maybe from nocca, which means knuckles, or from the Lombard word knohha, which means knot (such as wood knot) or the word noce, which means walnut—all words that imply the small, tight, rounded shape of gnocchi that we know today.
Gnocchi are one of the first types of pastas ever made? The first gnocchi were found during digs in a Neolithic village in Trentino-Alto Adige. In fact, archaeologists found a dozen small dumplings made with roughly ground flour from local cereals….like I said, gnocchi have been around forever!
In fact, gnocchi and Italy have had a long love story and all sorts of gnocchi, with a variety of base ingredients depending on where they come from, have been created: flour, corn meal, semolina, bread, chestnut flour, ricotta, or with vegetables—from pumpkin to spinach to the classic potato.
However, the best-known kind of gnocchi is the potato one. So, how did this come to be? There are a few stories and legends, such as this one:
The recipe was created in the 15th century in Sorrento, by a cook intrigued by the new botanical curiosity coming from the Americas. Explorers returned to Europe with their ships full of exotic fruit and vegetables, among these potatoes and tomatoes. The cook decided to experiment with the new ingredients and invented the potato gnocchi by adding mashed potatoes to the classic gnocchi dough of flour and eggs. Then he took the tomatoes and made a sauce out of them, adding mozzarella and basil, so as to mix the New World with the Old.
As charming as this story might be, it’s historically very inaccurate.
Potatoes and tomatoes weren’t introduced into Italian cuisine until much later. Tomatoes were a purely decorative plant, gifted by aristocratic gentlemen to their love interests (pomodoro, the Italian for tomato, means 'golden apple' – a gallant recall of the Greek legend of the Golden Apple, destined for the most beautiful woman alive). Potatoes, on the other hand, were considered such a foul food that they weren't even dignified enough to be given to beggars. It was only after the famine of 1724 that potatoes started to make their way into Italian cuisine, and tomatoes even later. Therefore gnocchi alla Sorrentina is likely to have been created at the beginning of the 19th century.
And shortly thereafter, Pellegrino Artusi, the “grandfather” of Italian cuisine, published a recipe for potato gnocchi prepared in exactly the same way that we see today, complete with the story of a woman whose gnocchi disappeared in the pot she was boiling them in—because she hadn’t used enough flour to hold them together. Artusi suggests first shaping the gnocchi into pinky-sized pieces and then rolling them against the back of a cheese grater for texture. That texture, whether created by rolling gnocchi with the tines of a fork or with a special wooden implement, helps give the otherwise smooth dumplings little nooks and crannies where sauce can hide, and guarantee full flavor with every bite.
Enough talk about Gnocchi - let’s make some. Below are a couple of our favorite recipes: the traditional Gnocchi alla Sorrentina and Gnocchi Tirolesi, also known as Spaetzle agli Spinaci (these come from the northern Tyrol region of Italy - where there is a strong German influence). And, finally, a new recipe that we haven’t tried yet - primarily because my husband is a bit skeptical of the idea of gnocchi made with beets - what do you think? Worth trying?
Gnocchi alla Sorrentina
Ingredients for six people:
4 Medium-sized potatoes, best are russet (not red or Yukon gold)
½-1 cup of flour (just enough to hold them together, but not too much to make them hard)
1 tsp. of salt
Tomato sauce (see below)
Mozzarella (the best you can buy)!
Rinse potatoes thoroughly. Boil potatoes with the skins. Peel and mash them, add about ¼ cup of flour, ½ of the egg and salt. Add flour and more egg until your dough has a soft, smooth and not sticky texture. Break off a piece of dough (about the size of two golf balls). On a lightly floured surface roll the dough with your fingers to form a long cylinder (about ½” diameter). Cut into ½” pieces, and slightly pinch both ends. Place the gnocchi on a floured surface (or baking sheet).
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, place all gnocchi in the water and when they come to the surface remove them from the pot.
Place in casserole or individual terrines. Add tomato sauce, (see recipes below) and mozzarella.
Place in oven on broil for about 5 minutes, until cheese is melted. Top with a little fresh basil, serve with grated parmigiano.
Two Versions of Tomato Sauce
Vigliacca version (easy version)
Sauté olive oil, basil, garlic cloves and salt. Add San Marzano peeled whole tomatoes. Simmer for at least 30 minutes. Remove garlic cloves and purée.
Or, with more vegetables:
Finely chop 1 carrot, 1 celery stalk and 1 small onion (I use cuisinart), sauté chopped vegetables in olive oil and basil, add two cans of San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes. Simmer and then purée.
Spatzle agli Spinaci con Burro e Salvia (Butter and Sage sauce)
1 lb. Fresh spinach
About 1.5 - 2 cups of Flour
T tsp. Nutmeg
Salt q.b. (Quanto Basta - just enough)
Ingredients for Sauce
5 TBSP. Butter
Lots of Fresh Sage
Parmigiano ( as much as you like - just use the real parmigiano!)
Important instrument: or see below instructions if you don't have this item
How to Prepare
Steam the washed spinach just until it is tender. Remove from steamer and let cool. Squeeze as much moisture out by using paper towels. Place spinach between layers of paper towels to continue to remove excess moisture. Place spinach, eggs, flour and nutmeg in a cuisinart and blend until you have a nice paste.
In the meantime, put a large pot of salted water on and bring to a boil. When water boils, use your spatzle maker to distribute in water (otherwise, according the NYTimes cooking, you can do with a spoon, by flicking into the pot: Stand close to the pot with the bowl of dough in one hand and a soup spoon in the other. With the edge of the spoon, grab thin slivers of dough approximately 1 inch long, dropping them one by one into the boiling water. (Cook a dozen or so at a time.)
Either method you use: After dropping all of the spatzle in the boiling water, give a nice stir to the pot. When the spatzle float to the top, remove and place on large sheet pan lined with wax paper.
Butter and Sage Sauce
Melt half of the butter in a sauce pan. Add chopped sage and sauté for a few minutes. Be careful to not burn the butter. Remove from heat, add the rest of the butter and cover to let butter melt.
Put it all together and Enjoy!
Put spatzle in a large sauce pan, add the butter and sage sauce and toss to distribute. Serve in individual bowls and add parmigiano as desired!
Beet and Ricotta Gnocchi
1 1⁄4 lb. small red beets with greens, greens separated, stems cut in 1/2″ pieces, leaves torn into 2″ pieces, and beets scrubbed
1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1⁄2 cup homemade ricotta
1⁄2 cup finely grated parmesan, plus more for serving
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
2 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
Semolina flour, for dusting
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
Aged balsamic vinegar, for drizzling
Heat oven to 350°. Toss beets, 2 tbsp. oil, salt, pepper, and 1⁄4 cup water in a 9″ x 13″ baking dish and cover with foil; roast until tender, about 1 hour. Peel beets and transfer to a food processor. Add ricotta, parmesan, nutmeg, egg, and salt; purée until smooth and transfer to a bowl. Add 1 1⁄2 cups flour and, using your hands, mix until a sticky dough forms. Sprinkle 1⁄2 cup flour on a work surface. Place dough on top. Sprinkle remaining flour over dough and cover loosely with plastic wrap; let sit 30 minutes.
Cut dough into 6 pieces, incorporating flour; this is an extremely soft dough. Working with one piece at a time, and using your hands, roll dough into a 1⁄2“-thick rope. Cut rope crosswise into 1⁄2” gnocchi; transfer to a semolina-dusted, parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Separate gnocchi to prevent sticking.
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a simmer over medium-high. Cook gnocchi, all at once, until they float, 2–3 minutes. Meanwhile, heat remaining oil and butter in a 12″ skillet over medium-high. Cook beet green stems until soft, 2-3 minutes. Add beet leaves; cook until wilted, 1–2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer gnocchi to skillet; season with salt and pepper, and toss to combine. Transfer gnocchi to a serving platter; drizzle with balsamic and sprinkle with parmigiano.