Up until about fifteen years ago, I didn’t know how many different types of gnocchi there were. I thought I had Italian food figured. But Italy is a huge country, at least in terms of the depth and breadth of its cuisine, and there’s so much more to Italian cooking than the commonplace pizza, fettuccine, and lasagna that most Americans know by heart. This semolina gnocchi dish — gnocchi alla romana, to those in the know — is one example of how even your favorite, familiar, tried-and-true cuisines can leave you pleasantly surprised — and hungry for more.
I first tasted semolina gnocchi while I was doing consulting work for an American company that made their product in Italy. I had a short stop-over in Rome, and decided to kill a few hours in the city before my flight. Wandering down cobblestone streets and ancient alleyways, I turned a corner into a piazza and saw a tiny, quintessentially Italian cafe: vine-shrouded facade, rickety chairs and tables positioned neatly outside, a row of umbrellas flapping gently in the breeze. I scanned the menu absentmindedly, eyeing the spaghetti alle Vongole and lingering idly over the description of the panzanella with radicchio, fennel, and olive. Gnocchi sounded good, I thought. But wait — it’s made with semolina?
As a chef, I was very familiar with Italian food. But I’d never seen this type of gnocchi before. When most people think of gnocchi, they typically imagine soft, pillowy puffs of potato pasta. But many people don’t know that the oldest gnocchi recipes weren’t made with potatoes at all, but with coarsely ground durum wheat — also known as semolina. It’s believed that the dish originated in the Middle East. Passed along by ancient Romans as their empire grew, the recipe was adapted many times by different local cultures whose flavor preferences and ingredient availability ranged widely from region to region. While potato is probably the most popular type of gnocchi today, it can be made with just about any ingredient that can be formed into a dough, from polenta to ricotta to pâte à choux.
But the original version, made with semolina, has maintained its place in Roman cuisine to this very day.
Sitting at the cafe table in Rome, I blew gently on my dish of piping hot, golden semolina morsels, took a bite, and was instantly captivated. It tasted more like polenta than the gnocchi I was used to — lighter in texture, yet rich and custardy. I was struck by how simple it was, but so very, very satisfying.
Gnocchi may be the ultimate comfort food, but I embraced a lighter touch when recreating the dish for Munchery‘s upcoming menu. It’s made with sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and walnuts, which give it a richness of flavor without weighing it down, and still make for a healthy dish. The gnocchi is a bit crispy on top with a creamy center, then topped off with sweet peppers, onions, and fontina cheese for a bit of contrast.
But my favorite part of the dish? The delicious sensation of knowing even the most familiar cuisines can still surprise you once in awhile.