essentially a kind of dumpling, are distinguished from other dumplings by being Italian and having a close link with pasta. They are made either from a pasta dough or from a mixture of potato flour and wheat flour, or from semolina or maize (polenta). In form they are about the size of a thimble and are usually given a special shape by rolling the dough against a fork or the back of a grater, or forcing it through a wicker sieve, or in other ways. An illustration to the 16th-century macaronic poem ‘Baldus’ shows the Muses eating gnocchi the size of northern dumplings; but this may be a joke. Some of the numerous local varieties of gnocchi are described below.
The origin of gnocchi is inescapably tied up with that of pasta, partly because at first a similar mixture was used to make both, and partly because many old works called both ‘m’caroni’. (The confusion persists in modern Padua.) It has been suggested that the macaroni mentioned in the Decameron (1351) as being rolled down a mountain of grated Parmesan by the inhabitants of the mythical land of Bengodi were actually gnocchi or they would not have rolled. The original flour and water mixture for gnocchi is still used in some parts of Italy, but mostly they are now made of potato flour with a little wheat flour. This usage dates only from about 1860, but the curious Mantuan gnocchi made from pumpkin are two or three centuries older than that.
Gnocchi are boiled and served with a sauce in more or less the same manner as pasta. They may be bought ready made, or made at home. The dough is formed into small balls and given a special shape or pattern in one of the ways referred to above. Miniature gnocchi for putting into soup can be made by pressing the dough through a coarse sieve or a perforated spoon. Since potato gnocchi were introduced in the 1860s they have become the dominant type; but in Genoa trofie (made by rolling a strip of dough around a stick) and corzetti (moulded by hand into a figure of eight shape) are made from pasta dough. Trofie are an alternative to trenette (thick pasta of a roughly square cross-section) for serving with the famous pesto sauce.
Also made from pasta dough are the strangulapreti (‘priest chokers’) of Lucano. The idea of priests choking on gnocchi seems to be a favoured one: there are also strozzapreti, made with spinach dough, in Tuscany; and strangulaprievete, made from a conventional potato mixture, in Naples. In Mantua gnocchi di zucca are made from pumpkin with a little wheat flour to help the dough to bind. They are of an attractive golden colour, and are usually served plain with a little butter and cheese.
Other gnocchi include the Roman home-made kind, made from a boiled potato farina and egg mixture and cut into flat rounds with a glass; and the Sardinian malloreddus, made from a very plain flour and water dough and pressed with the thumb against a textured surface so that when cooked they curl up into the form of giant woodlice.