With the word “Gnocco” (from the Longobard “knohha” meaning knot; the better known and used “gnocchi” is just the plural form in Italian) we usually identify every kind of piece of dough cooked in boiling water or broth.
The first known record has been found in Italy, in the Ledro valley (near the Garda lake), where in the archaeological site of an ancient pile-dwelling village, some little balls made of a mix of water and a sort of cereal flour were found close to a rudimental stone mill.
The concept is so easy and someway instinctive that in many countries such a preparation found its place, even if nowadays it has become a traditional dish (in many various shape and mix of ingredients) in Italy and in most of the Middle and Eastern Europe.
In Italy already in the 16th century were a popular dish, typical of the tables of the poor classes, but anyway mentioned in many old recipe collections. In those times they were called “zanzarelli” and were mainly done of breadcrumbs, milk and dry fruits (usually crushed almonds).
In the 17th century they changed name into “malfatti” (somewhere are still locally called with this name) replacing breadcrumbs and almonds with the more usual flours, and milk with water.
Notice that when we say flour we mean every kind of flour was in use in the various regions, so could be of wheat, corn, rice, semolina, buckwheat, almond, chestnuts, and so on.
In the 18th century eventually potatoes came in, going to change (together with tomato) the European culinary habits together with the recipe of “gnocchi”. The circumstance of the rapid diffusion of potatoes in the old continent kitchens has a little anecdote to be told.
Batteries and potatoes
The first character of this anecdote is Antoine Parmentier a French pharmacist, that was captured during the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and interned in Germany where was fed exclusively with potatoes, in those times used only as animal feed. Once returned to France he exalted this food, making his voice arrive up to the court of Louis XVI.
Few years later, in 1801, Alexander Volta was in Paris as a guest, to present his invention of the battery to the Institute of France and to Napoleon. Being a comprehensive researcher and a good gastronome too, when back in Italy contributed considerably to the diffusion of the use of potatoes, above all debunking the myth of its toxicity.
From there to the replacement of part of the flour in the gnocchi making, the step was really short, thanks to a so much lighter result. In the end of the 19th century potato gnocchi had spread everywhere leaving to the previous versions only few local niches.
Old and new traditions
Today gnocchi are a very popular dish in all the Italian regions and in a wide part of Europe. It has been associated to many local traditions in many places.
In Rome a traditional quote says: “Giovedì gnocchi, Venerdì pesce e Sabato trippa” (literally “Thursday gnocchi, Friday fish, Saturday tripe”) giving an idea of how much our dish was popular. Another roman quote says: ”Ridi, ridi, che mamma ha fatto li gnocchi” (literally “Go on laughing, as mom made gnocchi”) showing how much our beloved dish was welcome.
But gnocchi has also become locally a sort of symbol, like in the case of Verona, the town of Romeo and Juliet. The incipit was the great famine of 1531. In that occasion the Town’s Council, led by Tommaso Da Vico, to avoid a popular insurrection, decided to donate to the poorest neighbours of the town a big quantity of bread, wine, butter, flour and cheese in the last Friday before Lent. Da Vico, in his testament, issued that this had to be done in that same day every year to come. So began the tradition of the “Venerdì gnocolar” (Friday of gnocchi) because all the food donations were represented by a dish of gnocchi. And the public figure of Da Vico, probably originated Verona’s Carnival character, “Papà del Gnoco” (Gnocco’s dad), whose sceptre is a great fork with a pierced gnocco.
But the popularity of gnocchi arrived, thanks to the Italian immigrates of the beginning of the 20th century, also to the other part of the Ocean, in all the Latin America, and particularly in Argentina where the 29th day of every month was traditionally called “Dia de Ñoquis” (the Gnocchi day). Usually the day 29 was the day before payday, and gnocchi was a perfect dish in that day, being extremely filling but not expensive.
Not only potatoes
As we already said gnocchi were long time before the coming of potatoes, and though the word “gnocchi” is generally associated to the potato ones, the kinds of gnocchi that survive still today are too many and made with every kind of flour and other ingredients. Here is a regional list only for Italy, probably not complete too. In other countries have more, from Austrian knödel to Lithuanian cepelinai). Just to have an idea of how gnocchi are a whole “universe” for cooking.
Piemonte e Valle D’Aosta: Gnocchi alla bava
Piemonte: Dunderet (Strangoiapreve), Ravioles della Valvaraita
Lombardia: Gnoc de la cua, Malfatti, Gnocchi alla lariana, Gnocchi de ‘pa, Pizzoccheri della Val Chiavenna, Capunsei, Gnocarei, Gnòc de schelt, Gnòc de rìh, Gnocchi di zucca
Trentino Alto Adige: Canederli (Knödel, Marillenknödel, Zwetschgenknödel), Spätzle, Knöpfle
Friuli Venezia Giulia: Gnocchetti de gries, Gnochi de pan, Gnocchi de susini
Veneto: Gnocchi con la pastissada, Gnochi con la fioreta
Emilia Romagna: Pisarei e faśö, Malfatti di Borgotaro
Toscana: Gnocchi gnudi, Gnocchi del cicolano, Matuffi
Marche: Gnocchi di Apecchio
Umbria: Gnocchetti alla collescipolana
Lazio: Gnocchi alla romana, Gnocchi de lu contadinu, Gnocchi ricci
Campania: Gnocchi alla sorrentina
Puglia: Triddhi, Pizzua