I grew up eating boxed tri-color rotini with a jar of Ragu on a regular basis, so it’s safe to say that my knowledge of Italian cuisine didn’t really come into its own until after I left home. I’ll never forget my first time at a restaurant in Little Italy in Boston’s North End, where not only was I served bread with olive oil for dipping (I was used to foil-wrapped pats of butter), but I also tasted gnocchi for the first time. After that meal, I was changed. I learned how to make pillowy-soft gnocchi at home, I ordered it every chance I got, and when Trader Joe’s started selling frozen gnocchi, you know I stocked my freezer. But I recently saw one recipe that stopped me in my tracks: Giada De Laurentiis’ gnocchi alla Romana, which cooks gnocchi in a way I never even dreamed of.
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While most gnocchi I’ve eaten has been made with a dough of potatoes or ricotta and flour that’s then boiled and served with sauce, or boiled then pan-fried with plenty of butter, this hearty dish from Northern Italy (where the winters are quite cold) calls for something totally different. Of course De Laurentiis, who’s authored more than one cookbook about Italy, would have a surprise like this up her sleeve.
First of all, the semolina-based gnocchi dough is made in a saucepan, then is poured into a baking tray to cool, becoming almost polenta-like in texture. When it cools, you use a cookie cutter to cut out rounds of the gnocchi, layering them in a buttered 9×13 baking dish that’s been coated in marinara sauce. The gnocchi is topped with Parmesan and Pecorino cheese, basil, and butter, and is baked then broiled until everything is melty, browned, bubbling, and begging to be eaten.
The result is something that’s totally different from any gnocchi I’ve ever had before. It’s chewy and satisfying, the gnocchi rounds themselves containing enough Parmesan cheese to add a savory saltiness you won’t be able to get enough of. Then there’s the marinara, providing a saucy sweetness that helps balance the whole dish.
But I’d be lying if I said the best part of the dish was anything but the layer of melted, browned cheese and butter on top. It’s what truly sets this dish apart, and each decadent bite will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about gnocchi, pasta, Italian food, food in general, the meaning of life – you get the idea.
Those cold winter nights will be a lot easier to deal with when you have a tray of gnocchi alla Romana baking up in the oven.
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Watch: How to Make Giada De Laurentiis’ Stuffed Lasagna Rolls