Translating the Italian word gnocchi with ‘dumplings’ does a great disservice to what actually is the mother of all dumplings. The concept of gnocchi arrived in Italy in the times of the Roman empire, when soldiers returned to the capital from the Middle East. There they had seen and tasted some sort of dumpling made with coarse flour, and when this was reported to the Roman cooks they immediately set out to make their variation of such a recipe.

The result were semolina flour dumplings – much tastier and known to this day as gnocchi alla romana (as they do them in Rome). That dish started an experimentation craze with all sort of flours: wheat, buckwheat, breadcrumbs, rice flour, roots or greens. Soon gnocchi (that’s a plural, by the way: the singular form is gnocco) became a typical Italian food in a myriad of variations. The real breakthrough however only came in the late Fifteenth century, when explorers brought potatoes from the Americas. Cooks immediately saw the advantage of using a mix of flour and squashed potatoes to make an even tastier gnocchi variant, and since that day your typical gnocco is made this way.

Having said this, most Italian regions still offer their local interpretations of gnocchi. Here is a brief overview of the best known types:

•    Zanzarelli (Lombardia) – crumb, milk, ground almonds
•    Malfatti (Toscana) – flour, water, eggs, cheese
•    Cavatielli (Puglia) – mostly flour
•    Canederli (Trentino) – crumb, cheese, cured meat

Beside these major variations, colored gnocchi are also pretty common in Italy. The color depends on what you add to the dough, so tomato makes them red, spinach is green, squid ink is black, squash is yellow, carrots is orange and so on.


It is worth noting that gnocchi are not pasta. In fact, in olden times they were considered a rich dish to be eaten on special days: the Italian proverb “ridi, ridi, che mamma ha fatto gnocchi” (smile, as your mother made gnocchi today) hints at this.
This is also the time to answer a question plaguing many full-blooded Italians too. The correct article to put before the word ‘gnocchi’ is gli, not i. Just remember this when you’ll order your first gnocchi course during your next trip to Italy, and you are going to make an impression.