Gnocchi alla Sorrentina is a pasta dish made in the Sorrento style, but it reminds me of walking along Sorrento’s cliffside coastline and looking down onto Marinas Grande and Piccola and out onto the blue bay of Naples. I see tiles painted with bright blues, greens, yellows, and pinks. Colors swirled together forming scenes of coastal villages, houses on hillsides, bougainvillea covered terraces with ocean views, lemons and lemon groves. A maze of narrow streets lined with souvenir shops. Lemons are everywhere, lemon gelato, limoncello, lemon delizia.
Sitting in Piazza Tasso sipping an aperitivo. T-shirted men, with bellies that reveal their lifelong passion for pasta, spending their days of retirement on park benches chatting and playing cards. Unleashed dogs lazily laying in the shade. A rooster, who can’t tell time, crowing every evening in the yard behind our hotel room. A bus ride along a crazy curving highway. Hearing its horn honk at the arrival of each turn. Looking out the bus window at the deep drop down into the turquoise water. Breathtaking ocean views and hairpin turns. A boat ride to an island with the same name as a salad. Smaller boat rides inside grottoes the colors of sapphires and emeralds. Watching the sun set on the gulf of Naples while an ACTIVE volcano looms in the distance.
My memories of Gnocchi alla Sorrentina are as joined together memories of Sorrento as the mozzarella and gnocchi join together to make this dish. That trip was over 10 years ago, one of my first visits to Italy. It was way before I started meticulously detailing where, when, what I ate, and the intricacies involved in making each dish. Instead I inhaled the entire experience at once. Now all the memories stream together like a collage of postcards pasted one on top of another.
The name of the restaurant where I first ate these gnocchi escapes me, but I do remember it was full of painted tiles and lemons. The waiter’s face is a bit of a blur, but I do remember his meal suggestion: Gnocchi alla Sorrentina, Baba a Rhum for dessert (and I’ll never forget the way he pronounced rum; it was like the sound an engine makes…..rrrrooooom), and a shot glass of limoncello to finish. The gnocchi, little knuckles the size of a newborn baby’s fist, swam in the sweetest basil-infused tomato sauce, and melted mozzarella wrapped around each gnocco. I had to cut the strings of cheese that stretched from the plate to my fork, or I would find mozzarella strings hanging from my mouth as I chewed. The dish showcases ingredients that are the pride of the Campania region in Italy-San Marzano tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella. It’s the first dish I order whenever I visit Sorrento.
If a visit to Sorrento, or Campania isn’t in your near future, below is the recipe for you to make at home.
(serves 4 as a main course or 6 as a first course)
1 1/2 pounds potato gnocchi (recipe below)
About 1 1/2 cups tomato sauce (recipe below)
12 ounces mozzarella cheese, cubed
4 basil leaves, plus one sprig for garnish
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano cheese
Bring about 8 cups of well-salted water to a boil. Heat the tomato sauce. Place the gnocchi in the boiling water a few at a time. (You want to always keep the water at a boiling temperature.) In a sauté pan, heat 1 cup of the tomato sauce. As soon as the gnocchi rise to the top of the water, drain off the water and place them into the sauté pan with the tomato sauce. Mix together. The gnocchi should be only lightly coated with tomato sauce. Place half the gnocchi in a shallow ovenproof casserole dish. Top with half of the cubed mozzarella cheese and 1/4 cup of the tomato sauce. Place the remaining gnocchi on top, the rest of the tomato sauce, and top with the rest of the mozzarella. Sprinkle with the Parmigiano cheese. Place under a broiler until the mozzarella is melted and slightly golden, about 7 minutes. Buon Appetito!
To make the Gnocchi:
(Makes about 2 pounds of gnocchi)
28 ounces (3-4) russet potatoes
About 1 1/3 cups flour, plus more for rolling out the gnocchi
1 Tablespoon kosher salt
Heat the oven to 350°F
Bake the potatoes, whole and in their skin, for 70 minutes. As soon as the potatoes come out of the oven, halve them, scoop out the center, and put through a food ricer. Spread the riced potatoes in a single layer onto a working surface and let cool completely, about 25 minutes. Once the potatoes have cooled, sprinkle 1 cup of the flour and the salt over the potatoes. Gather the mixture together to form a well. Add the egg into the middle of the well, and lightly knead the mixture together just until all ingredients are combined and it forms a ball. (This should take no more than 2-3 minutes.) It’s important not to overwork the dough, as this will make the gnocchi heavy and tough. Divide the dough into six pieces. Roll each piece out into a rope about 1/2-inch in diameter. Cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Give each piece a quick roll into a ball. Create ridges in the gnocchi by rolling them onto a fork (If you have a wooden “gnocchi board,” use this instead.) Cook them right away or freeze them. (If you’re freezing them, place them in a single layer on a baking sheet into the freezer. Once they are individually frozen, you can place them together or on top of each other in a bag or container.)
To Make the Tomato Sauce:
(Makes about 2 cups)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
3 lbs fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped (can also use two 28 ounce canned and peeled tomatoes)
2 teaspoons salt
1 Teaspoon sugar (optional)
4 basil leaves
Over medium heat, heat the olive oil and gently sweat the garlic in a saucepot, 3-4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt and sugar and increase the heat to medium-high. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook off the liquid for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently to make sure it doesn’t scorch. Place the tomatoes in a colander to drain, reserving the tomato liquid. Run the tomatoes through a food mill. (The larger the holes in the disk, the chunkier your sauce will be.) If you prefer a sauce with a fine texture, you can process the tomatoes in a food processor. Return the sauce to the pot, add the basil leaves, and cook on medium-low heat for 30 minutes, until it reaches the desired consistency. If the sauce is too thick, add some of the reserved tomato juice to it. Remove the garlic and basil before using.
NOTE: Because most of us don’t live near an active volcano with lava-enriched soil to sweeten our tomatoes, you can enhance the sweetness of the tomatoes a bit with the sugar and also by adding half a small onion and half a carrot, finely diced, to the sauce. This is not traditional but it will help when you don’t have Campania-grown San Marzano tomatoes at your disposal. If you choose to add the onion and carrot, sweat them with a generous pinch of salt in the olive oil for 4-5 minutes, just before adding the garlic.
About Kathy Ayer aka foodloverkathy (on Twitter)
Kathy shares her love for food and travel in Italy and France at Food Lover’s Odyssey. She’s been cooking and telling food stories since she was eight years old. Raised in an Italian-American kitchen and trained professionally in a French one in Paris. She’s been eating her way through the bel paese over the past 10 years, returning yearly to both France and Italy on food journeys. She works in Northern California as a personal chef and as a travel consultant, helping others create dream culinary journeys. Read about her tasty tales of food and travel in Italy and France at Food Lover’s Odyssey. Find her on Twitter @foodloverkathy
She fell in love with Naples on her first visit and keeps coming back. She can’t pinpoint one thing; it’s a combination of all things Napolitani. The people – embracing life and visitors with a passion as fervent as the traffic in the streets. The atmosphere – the beauty of the bay of Naples, an ancient city both decaying and enduring and full of history, and a chaos and frenzy the for her reflects the zest for life of the people. And, the food – one of the best in all of Italy – something for every taste; seafood, slow-cooked, succulent, sweet, simple, fussed-over, fried, and of course, pizza.
See all of Kathy Ayer’s Recipes on Napoli Unplugged