Gnocchi are a cornerstone of Roman home cooking, as much a part of the city’s trattorias as rigatoni, bread, toothpicks and nonchalant chaos – especially on a Thursday.
The tradition is encapsulated by a stornello Romano, a Roman folk rhyme noting a weekly calendar of dishes that goes something like this: Monday beans with pork rind, Tuesday braised meat with celery, Wednesday oxtail, Thursday se Dio vorrà, li gnocchi (if god wants, gnocchi), Friday fresh fish soup, Saturday tripe with sauce, Sunday supplì, or rice croquettes. There were different versions of this calendar and rhyme, which were adopted in different ways; some trattorias follow it faithfully, others just nod. This continues to this day, but whether faithful or nodding, one thing is almost certain: Giovedì gnocchi – on Thursday there are gnocchi.
Gnocchi made with potatoes – and flour, maybe an egg (cue strong opinions) – are relatively modern, dating back to the mid-19th century when, finally, the potato was broadly accepted as a crop and food. Before that, gnocchi (which are thought to take their name from the Venetian dialect gnoco, the word for a knot or protuberance) were more innovative – resourcefulness in a nugget, made from whatever was available: breadcrumbs, leftover batter, bread dough, chestnuts, squashes, or whatever flour was at hand – rice, rye and chestnut flours were all used to make gnocchi in various regions. And, of course, wheat flour, especially durum wheat, which – depending on the milling – gives us either semolina or semola (Italian durum wheat flour).
In fact, before potatoes, gnocchi in Rome, gnocchi alla Romana, were made of semolina. As a great lover of semolina pudding (with a blob of raspberry jam, please), the process is familiar to me: the grains swelling in milk until swampy, thick and tugging away from the sides of the pan. The next step is less familiar: enriching the mixture with cheese and eggs, allowing it to set, cutting it into circles, then baking it with more butter and cheese. This is not a dish you see very often in trattorias, but it is one that lives on in homes and deserves to be better known. Also, it is a satisfying dish to make, providing the same mild thrill as rice pudding: a seemingly small amount can thicken so well (too well, you might worry). Semolina may seem tough and granular, but its brittle nature protects it, and this is the reason it doesn’t turn into paste and bake into a stodge. It remains surprisingly light in texture.
Baked with cheese, butter and whole sage leaves, gnocchi alla Romana is a ready comfort. I also love two or three rounds as a fringe to soak up the juices of peppery braised beef, slow-cooked oxtail stew or peperonata. Save the last five circles to dip in egg, then more semolina, and fry on Friday before the fish soup.
Gnocchi alla Romana – semolina gnocchi with butter, parmesan and sage
Prep 15 min
Rest 30 min +
Cook 15 min
1 litre whole milk
2 egg yolks
3 tbsp grated parmesan
2 tbsp grated pecorino
12 sage leaves
Put the milk, half the butter, a pinch of salt and a grating of nutmeg into a pan and warm over a moderate heat until the mixture almost boils.
Lower the heat so that it simmers and add the semolina, whisking as you do. Cook, whisking vigorously, until the mixture is as dense as polenta and coming away from the sides of the pan – five to seven minutes. Add the egg yolks and parmesan, and stir.
Scrape on to a piece of baking parchment and bring in the edges so it forms a log, then roll back and forth to help shape it. Rest at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour.
Unroll and cut into discs of 1cm width. Arrange the discs in a buttered dish, overlapping them slightly, then intersperse with the sage leaves. Dot with the remaining butter, sprinkle over the pecorino and bake for 15 minutes at 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4. Finish under the grill.