It is practically impossible to discuss gnocchi without invoking the p-word. Not “potato,” its historic main ingredient, but the aspirational “pillow.”
We’ve been to Brookstone and Bed Bath & Beyond, so we understand the variations along those lines. Fluffy. With shape-holding density. Heavy enough for combat. Whichever kind you’re accustomed to will do just fine, thank you — until the moment you experience the deliciousness of, say, a custom model that costs a grand. The stuff dreams are made of.
Those distinctions are apt for gnocchi, too.
The dumpling derivatives have been made for hundreds of years. Potato gnocchi began as Italian peasant food that required few components, little time and maybe one hand-powered piece of equipment. It has been universally embraced in its boot-shaped native land, north to south, where provincial gastronomic divisions are the norm.
Gnocchi is so celebrated, in fact, that it has its own day — and I don’t mean a head-scratcher like National Almond Buttercrunch Day. Trattorias in Rome serve it up on Gnocchi Thursdays, while Argentina and Uruguay have adopted their own monthly Dia de Noquis.
When you grow up eating the gnocchi your family put on the table, it becomes the gold standard. You might tweak a recipe so that it becomes your own, shaping it into an enviable entree. Order it at a number of restaurants, and you start to appreciate the better versions.
Then, when you least expect it, a transcendent forkful sends your kitchen brain into overdrive. It can initiate a quest into whys and wherefores that prompts tuberous hoarding and habitual flour dusting.
That is what happened to me. You might not get the opportunity to have close encounters with gnocchi pros, so I’m sharing my journey.
It took one taste of Marjorie Meek-Bradley’s potato gnocchi, situated in a springtime mix of lamb shank ragu, peas, pickled ramps and garrotxa cheese. The dish won best in show at the 2013 D.C. Lamb Jam. There was at least one other gnocchi dish in the May competition, and it was mighty good.
But Meek-Bradley’s gnocchi were otherwordly: tender, silky and light. Ripple patrons won’t let her take them off the menu, so she changes sauces for a little variety. How did a California girl come to possess such a gift? She learned from New York chef Jonathan Benno, now at Lincoln Ristorante on the Upper West Side. Meek-Bradley worked with him when he was chef de cuisine at the three-Michelin star Per Se.
“We’ve all made the gluey, leaden sinkers,” says Benno. “Potato gnocchi should be light. Sounds like Marjorie’s got the touch.”
When asked to describe them, Meek-Bradley says her gnocchi “eats like a pillow.”
Potatoes, egg yolks, kosher salt and all-purpose flour. She e-mailed succinct instructions. Two attempts later, my interpretation was nowhere close to what she’d served. Unnerving for my line of work. A 15-minute demonstration in the calm of Ripple’s no-lunch-service kitchen cleared things up considerably.
“I thought to myself, ‘Of course it makes sense to show you,’ ” she said, conjuring a “duh” as we waited for hot potatoes to finish in the oven. “That’s how technique is best explained.”
I was able to feel the potatoes’ temperature and that of the dough at key points. I saw how little Meek-Bradley incorporated elements with a plastic bench scraper. I discovered why she does not use a fork to create the grooves that make gnocchi look like mini mountain bike tires. (“You need a denser dough to do that,” she says.)
Each step surrendered its own lesson, enriched by the chef’s willingness to answer nitpicky questions. Her main takeaways focused on the potatoes: “Use russets,” a baking potato. “Not Yukon Gold. You need more starch than sugar.”
A season for gnocchi?
“Baking potatoes are too floury!” Domenica Marchetti says as gnocchi prep begins in her Alexandria kitchen. The former journalist and occasional Post contributor has written five Italian cookbooks, including “The Glorious Pasta of Italy” (Chronicle, 2011). She graciously agreed to a one-on-one session, even with her AC on the fritz and a nagging feeling that the weather would adversely affect the outcome.
Marchetti boils a mixture of unpeeled red bliss and Yukons. “That’s the way my mother taught me,” she says. “I’ve never made potato gnocchi any other way.” Hers are pleasantly denser than chef Meek-Bradley’s, using all-purpose flour (but less of it), a whole egg and grappa, a potent Italian aperitif. There is more moisture on her brow than in the pile of tepid potato squiggles on the counter. Minutes later, her dough has a shaggy, barely-pulled-together look. Semolina flour goes on the baking sheet for holding the formed gnocchi in the freezer.