When you work in a shop that specializes in the foods of a foreign country, as I did for 10 years, you often run into customers who aren’t quite sure how to pronounce an ingredient or product they want to purchase. More often than not, they boldly mispronounce what they are ordering and, depending on my mood and an assumption (or guess) as to how the person might take feedback, I may correct them, or I might bite my tongue, hand them the item and go about my business.
Besides handmade cut-to-order noodles in a variety of flavors and filled pastas such as ravioli and tortellini, we carried little dumplings made primarily of potatoes (with a touch of flour to help bind them) called gnocchi. Typically, the dough is rolled out into a rope, and then cut into little lumps a touch smaller than a cork. They are then pressed with the tines of a fork to make ridges that help hold the sauce. After being boiled for three or four minutes, they rise to the surface of the water, cooked through. Gnocchi are usually eaten with any number of sauces as an alternative to pasta for a first course.
We carried a few variations at the store: potatoes mixed alternatively with spinach or pumpkin and cheese gnocchi made with ricotta cheese. A totally different and lesser known form of the dish, popular in Rome, comes in the shape of round discs made from semolina flour. These, which I personally favor, are called gnocchi alla Romana. The disks are laid out in a baking dish, topped with melted butter and chopped fresh rosemary and generously sprinkled with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese before being baked until golden and a smidge crispy.
Now, to be honest, I am wondering how you, the reader of this piece, are pronouncing the word gnocchi each time you encounter it. Out of everything sold in the store, this one product received the most memorably mispronounced monikers. The least objectionable was nok-ee or noh-kee, with the most laughable being nookie or ganachi, running neck and neck. The truth is that it’s not an easy word to say and takes some practice getting it to sound right, meaning as an Italian would say it, which is nyawk-kee. You practically have to purse and thrust out your lips as though you are readying to kiss someone to say it correctly. I am saying it aloud to myself as I write this and am beginning to feel a little foolish.
Traditional gnocchi have never appealed much to me. Perhaps it’s that if made badly or cooked incorrectly they can be gummy or leaden. The Roman type, reminiscent of the farina and cream of wheat cereal I found so soothing as a child, is more delicate, but also more decadent due to the prodigious amounts of butter and cheese in the dish. The rosemary, though not traditional, is important to the mix as its herbal, woodsy note tempers the richness and adds a depth of flavor otherwise missing.
I often find myself making gnocchi alla Romana for breakfast on a bitterly cold, snowy winter morning. Though Italians would probably scoff at the idea of eating it other than as a first course or even a side dish to a piece of roasted meat, I discovered it sets me up for the day ahead. After a few tender buttery disks punctuated with the aroma and flavor of chopped rosemary, I’m ready to shovel the drive. Either that or head back to bed for a couple of hours.
Gnocchi alla Romana
Serves 6 as a first course
Semolina flour can be bought in stores that sell Italian products, online or in some supermarkets. Bob’s Red Mill brand can sometimes be found at Peck’s or Walmart.
3 cups whole milk
¾ cup semolina (preferably medium coarse, but fine will do too)
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup (1/2 stick) plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 large egg, beaten
3 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
Put the milk and salt in a saucepan set over moderate heat. In a slow, steady stream, add the semolina, whisking continually. Bring to a boil. When mixture begins to thicken, lower the heat a bit and swap the whisk for a wooden spoon. Stir constantly until mixture becomes stiff, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove pan from heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of the melted butter and ¾ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano. Beat in egg. Mix well. Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet or jelly roll pan with a bit of olive oil. Spread gnocchi mixture into the baking sheet and smooth with a spatula. Chill in the refrigerator, uncovered, until very firm, at least an hour. If you prefer, you can cover it with plastic wrap and leave it in the fridge overnight.
When ready to prepare the dish, preheat oven to 375°. Brush a gratin dish approximately 10” x 7” (or you could use a brownie pan or round glass pie plate) with a liberal amount of the melted butter. Using a 2-inch round cookie cutter or a thin-rimmed juice glass, cut mixture into rounds and arrange in the baking dish, slightly overlapping. Dip the cookie cutter or juice glass in warm water in between cutting to prevent it from sticking. Alternately, you can simply cut the gnocchi into squares. Brush gnocchi with remaining melted butter. Sprinkle with remaining ¼ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano. Sprinkle rosemary evenly over gnocchi. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until gnocchi are beginning to color. Serve immediately or run the dish under the broiler for a minute or two to crisp the gnocchi a bit.