Italian gnocchi history

The Fascinating History Of Gnocchi: Fun Facts, Varieties & Recipes

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I believe I am the right person to talk to you about gnocchi, considering that I eat them nearly every day (you’ll understand why at the end)!

I have tried different varieties, cooked many recipes, and even made them from scratch a few times.

If you too love those starchy little morsels of dough, you are in for a treat!



What Are Gnocchi?

To understand the origin of the Italian gnocchi, let’s start by looking at their definition and etymology.

Treccani defines them as follows:

gnòcco s. m. [dal veneto gnòco «protuberanza, gnocco», forse dal longob. knohhil «nodo nel legno»] (pl. -chi).

The definition above states that gnocco is the singular and gnocchi the plural. It also tells us the word might have originated from another Venetian similar word which meant protuberance. Another plausible origin is the Lombardic word “knohhil” meaning “knot in wood”.



first recipe in Italian gnocchi history

Gnocchi were initially made without potatoes

Since gnocchi as we know them today are mainly made with potatoes, it makes sense diving deep into the introduction of potatoes in Italy. However, there’s an interesting twist. The earliest form of gnocchi was not made with potatoes – but with flour, water, and eggs.

Either way, we know that potatoes were introduced in Italy at the beginning of the 16th century, when Cristoforo Colombo brought them back from America.

Nonetheless, for the following century, gnocchi kept being made using that original 3 ingredient recipe. Their consistency was very soft.

That early recipe was inspired by two famous Italian Renaissance cooks – Cristoforo Messisbugo e Bartolomeo Scappi.

Cristoforo Messisbugo: He was an Italian chef from Ferrara, known for his work “Banchetti, composizioni di vivande e apparecchio generale”, which was published in 1549.

His book is one of the earliest printed cookbooks in Italy and provides valuable insights into Renaissance-era Italian cuisine and culinary practices.

Bartolomeo Scappi: He was a renowned Italian chef who served as the personal chef to several popes during the 16th century, including Pope Pius IV and Pope Pius V.

Scappi’s most famous work is “Opera dell’arte del cucinare”, which was published in 1570. This cookbook is considered one of the most important culinary texts of the Renaissance period and contains a wide range of recipes, cooking techniques, and culinary insights.


Gnocchi Were First Known As Maccaroni

Not only they weren’t made of potatoes but they weren’t even called with their name. That’s very strange, isn’t it? Let’s see why.

The first to describe gnocchi is Giovanni Boccaccio in the Decameron. His fictitious character Calandrino describes an imaginary town in Italy where there are mountains of grated parmesan and people who spend their day making pasta. He called that pasta “maccheroni e raviuoli” and he also mentioned that they used to serve it in broth.

After a couple of centuries, historian Luigi Messedaglia uncovered that the pasta referred to as maccheroni was indeed gnocchi


Why did they call them maccaroni?

Since making pasta involves mashing ingredients, the pasta took its name from the verb “maccare”, which meant to mash or flatten. In fact, pasta dough was generally called “macco”.

Even Bartolomeo Scappi referred to gnocchi as maccaroni in his book. He described them as being made with flour, breadcrumbs, olive oil, saffron, and boiling water. He also added some information about the condiments; apparently, they were dressed with a garlic sauce and sprinkled with pepper and cinnamon. That sounds like a delicious combination.

Interestingly, gnocchi remained called maccaroni up until the 19th century. At that point, the word maccheroni started being used to refer to a dry pasta enjoyed by nobility, while gnocchi remained a peasant food.

To this date, you can still find older people in small towns in Italy that still call them maccaroni.


2 ingredients gnocchi recipe

The Simplest Gnocchi Recipe – Gnocchi all’Acqua

Remember how gnocchi were still being made without potatoes? Well, before they added the latter someone actually stripped the recipe even further.

It was Francesco Leonardi who in 1790 coined a gnocchi recipe, made with just 2 ingredients – flour and water.

The recipe involved using the same quantity of both ingredients, with the addition of some salt. The key to making them this way, was to boil the water, take it off the heat, and then add the flour, mixing well until the gnocchi dough would form. They would then cover the dough and set it aside for 30 minutes, after which they would cut it into sections, make cylinders, and cut them into gnocchi.

Feel free to try this simple recipe, especially if you are vegan and can’t use eggs.



Potatoes Are Added To Gnocchi & First Recipes

Finally, in the 19th century, famous cooks like Corrado started sharing gnocchi recipes made with potatoes.

Corrado’s description of gnocchi in his book, Cuoco Galante, introduces us to two new ways of dressing this pasta – “Gnocchi alla Panna e Gnocchi alla Dama”.

I’d say gnocchi alla panna is simply gnocchi with white sauce. As for Gnocchi alla Dama, from my research, I believe that recipe involves tossing the gnocchi into butter, sage, parmesan, and cinnamon.

However, I managed to find a digital copy of the Cuoco Galante. You can see it here.

Gnocchi alla panna is indeed dressed with a combination of white sauce and other ingredients, but Corrado’s recipe is much more complex than I thought. Below you can see the translation from the transcript of the book above.

“Gnocchi with Cream Sauce. – Cook fine flour with milk until it becomes a firm dough, which is then poured onto a work surface and allowed to cool. Once cooled, handle it and season it with egg yolks. Then, form gnocchi about the length of half a finger, which are hollowed out and filled with a stuffing made of capon breasts seasoned with Parmesan cheese, egg yolks, and milk cream. They are briefly boiled in broth. Afterward, arrange them in a dish with Parmesan cheese, butter, milk cream, and slices of truffles, cover them, and bake the Timpallo.”

Gnocchi alla Dama is on the other hand a totally different recipe from the modern one I found and shared above. Have a look at the translation from Corrado’s original version.

“Gnocchi alla Dama. – Crush hard-boiled egg yolks, grated Parmesan cheese, and capon breasts. Add milk cream and beaten eggs, season with spices, and shape into gnocchi about half the length of a finger. These are floured, cooked in broth, and arranged on a plate with Parmesan cheese, butter, and milk cream; covered with puff pastry, they are baked until they take on form and color.”

Both of these recipes are full on baked pasta recipes. They include expensive ingredients, at least for those times, like truffles; and they are even topped with puff pastry. I am truly amazed, and really tempted to try one of them. What about you?



famous recipe by Artusi in Italian gnocchi history

Easy Potato Gnocchi Recipe By Pellegrino Artusi  

Artusi shares in his book, La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene, that gnocchi were no longer a peasant food, and they started being enjoyed by nobility. That was already clear from Corrado’s fancy recipes.

He also adds that in the late 1800s there was already a large variety of gnocchi recipes, both for the pasta and condiment. He mentioned gnocchi in broth, potato gnocchi, yellow flour gnocchi (which I assume are made with corn flour), semolina gnocchi, gnocchi alla Romana, and even a sweet gnocchi made with milk.

Pellegrino also gave us a great potato gnocchi recipe to use, and 2 condiment ideas. Here it is for you to copy:

“Boil the potatoes in water or, preferably, steam them. While still hot, peel them and mash them. Then mix them with the aforementioned flour and work the dough with your hands, shaping it into a thin cylinder so that it can be cut into pieces about three centimeters long.

Lightly dust them with flour and, taking them one by one, hollow them out with your thumb on the back of a grater. Cook them in salted water for ten minutes, remove them dry, and season them with cheese, butter, and tomato sauce, as desired.

If you want them more delicate, cook them in milk and serve them without draining them; if the milk is of good quality, apart from salt, no seasoning is necessary or at most a pinch of Parmesan.”



Fun Roman Saying – Giovedì Gnocchi 

Next time you are in Rome, pay attention while walking down the streets. You might encounter a restaurant sign saying just that – Thursday Gnocchi.

Those two words first appeared in a poem by a Roman author, whose name is not known. The full saying goes like this: ‘Giovedì gnocchi, venerdì pesce e sabato trippa’.

That means “Thursday gnocchi, Friday fish, and Saturday tripe.” It’s a popular saying from the Trastevere neighborhood in Rome, that originated around the post-World war 2 period when poverty was widespread. Poor families had to use their food supplies sparingly and wisely. That’s how the habit and saying was born.

Those poor families prepared and ate gnocchi on a Thursday, as they saw it as a poor yet filling meal for a weekday. It was filling enough to give them the energy to work on Friday, but allowed them to keep the good stuff – fish and tripe for the weekend. In fact, the saying shows us how they used to enjoy fish on Fridays, also to respect no meat Fridays Catholic traditions, and tripe on Saturday.

Wondering what they would eat on a Sunday? Me too, so I did a quick search and some Italian sources say that it was either pasta or a premium meat cut, particularly lamb and the famous abbacchio, reserved for special occasions like Christmas and Easter.



Gnocchi Throughout Italy – Varieties From North To South

Gnocchi weren’t only popular in Venice and Rome, but they were loved and enjoyed by all Italians. This resulted in many delicious varieties, very different from each other – from Northern Italy stuffed potato dumplings to ricotta and baked versions. Let’s see the different types for each region; I am highlight the most popular ones.

Piemonte/Valle D’Aosta:


Lombardia:


canederli are an Italian gnocchi from Northern Italy

Trentino Alto Adige:


Friuli-Venezia-Giulia:


Veneto:


Emilia Romagna:


Gnudi are gnocchi from Tuscany

Tuscany:


Marche:


Umbria:


Lazio:


Campania:


Puglia:


Sicily:


Sardinia:



Did You Know That Gnocchi Are The Lowest Calorie Pasta?

Like a proper Italian, I love my food – and that includes both cooking and eating, but I also like to stay fit and watch my calories, especially daily.

Gnocchi are perfect, at least for me, because they are fresh pasta (which I love) and they also have half the calories of other types of dry and fresh pasta.

My favorite supermarket brand is Giovanni Rana. He makes different types of fresh pasta, including tagliatelle. Let’s compare the calories to its gnocchi and a regular cupboard spaghetti.

Giovanni Rana Gnocchi – 133 calories per 100 gr

Giovanni Rana Tagliatelle – 277 calories per 100 gr

Barilla Spaghetti – 359 calories per 100 gr

PS: Keep in mind that fresh pasta is heavier than dry pasta, so to eat the same quantity you would need to cook 30% more, 130 grams. That quantity would equal the same calories of 100 grams dry pasta. That’s approximately 360 calories. However, if you were to eat 150 gr of gnocchi, your calories would only be 200. 

Go ahead and use my hack to enjoy fresh pasta every day without the guilt or the extra inches.

I like to add gnocchi to a mix of cooked veggies, some protein (usually tuna), some extra virgin olive oil, and parmesan. Obviously, there are more delicious Italian recipes featuring gnocchi but they are higher in calories, so not something I’d eat daily.



When calories are not a concern, these are 3 iconic Italian recipes you need to try. One is from Naples, the other from Rome, and the third one from Mantova in Lombardy.

Gnocchi alla Sorrentina:


Gnocchi alla Romana:


Gnocchi with Pumpkin, Butter, and Sage:



There Is Even A Gnocchi National Day in Italy

Il Calendario del Cibo Italiano states that the 18th of November is National Gnocchi Day in Italy.

So if you need an excuse to try one of the many historic and classic Italian recipes I shared with you in this article, go ahead and do it on that day. You could even take it to the next level and host your own Italian gnocchi night. Make three gnocchi recipes and enjoy them with your family and friends.

If you need some pairing ideas, here’s a menu you can use.

Gnocchi Dinner Menu

Starters:
Typical Italian antipasti platter, including: bread, olive oil, balsamic vinegar of Modena, sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, olives, plus Italian hams and cheeses.

Main course: Trio of gnocchi

Dessert: Tiramisu and Amaroverna liquor



Read These Next

If you enjoy learning about the history of food, you might appreciate these other articles:

Is Pasta Italian?

Italian Chocolate: History & Best Brands

Italian Cookies: Names, Origins & Traditions

Aperitivo: The History & Culture



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