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Gnocchi alla Romana

March 19, 2011

Years ago, I did a short stint as a nanny for Barbara, a darling 10-year-old Venetian girl. She went to the British School in Venice and her parents wanted her to continue speaking English outside the classroom so, when Miranda her nanny of several years took a post as curator for a private art collection, I stepped in. What I hadn’t been told, but quickly learned, was that this was no ordinary “old school” family. They were in the upper crust of old school families and in addition to the palatial home the grandparents (and I) lived in Dorsoduro just behind Santa Maria della Salute, their family owned Villa Giusti in Padova where the WWI armistice ending warfare between Italy and Austria-Hungary was signed. The first weekend we went “to the country home” and I was being shown my room, we walked thru a darkened room with a round table in the middle. My room was just off that room where the famous signing took place. Click on this link to see the door to my room in the second photo.

This was my entrée into the other world. The nannies did the cooking for the children and all ate in the kitchen well before their parents meal was served al fresco on this gorgeous September weekend. 

Gnocchi alla Romana, was whipped up by a couple of the other nannies and gobbled up by all of us. Thinking back on it I liken it to mac ‘n cheese for Italian children. Made with semolina, milk, Parmesan and butter… not unlike, yet a world apart from, homemade macaroni and cheese made with pasta, cheese and butter.

Semolina is ground durum or hard wheat (without the outer ‘bran’ layer) just as grits are ground corn. It is a light golden color and most commonly used in making pasta. The egg causes these disks to puff up into light pillows and their creamy richness comes from the butter and parmegano stirred in at the end. An almost undetectable pinch of nutmeg is added and without it something would be missing but most would be hard pressed to name what it is.

This can be served as a main course or atop a bed of sautéed spinach or artichokes or as a side dish to accompany a meat of your choice. Because of the butter and cheese it would not be suited to serve with fish. Those are the rules I learned in Italy – cheese and fish don’t mix, and I agree. And if you’re making this for children, break out some fun cookie cutters such as stars or crescent moons. Regardless of their shape they are pure comfort food for kids of all ages.

Watch this entertaining RAI (Italian TV – food show) on making them. If you speak Italian (or Spanish) you’ll surely pick up on some of the banter giving it a variety show feel, quite different from the Food Network programming we are used to in the States.

Gnocchi alla Romana (half recipe pictured above)

Ingredients  Serves 4-6

  • 3 cups whole milk (700 grams) 
  • 3/4 cup semolina flour  (200 grams)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2  large egg yolks, lightly beaten
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
  • generous pinch ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, optional


Lightly oil a small baking sheet and a generously butter a low-sided baking or gratin dish.  In a heavy 3-4 quart saucepan, heat the milk then add salt and nutmeg. Pour semolina in a thin stream into the milk whisking vigorously over medium-high heat, about a minute. Switch to a wooden spoon and reduce heat to low. Continue stirring until the mixture bubbles and is very thick, about 8-10 minutes. Remove from heat and add beaten egg yolks and half of each parmesan and butter, stirring until smooth.

Turn semolina mixture on prepared baking sheet. Using a spatula spread to an even 1/2-inch-thick layer. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour or until cold and firm. 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F . Using a 2-inch-diameter cookie cutter or water glass, cut out rounds from the gnocchi mixture. Place the extra scraps of semolina dough on the bottom of the  buttered baking/gratin dish and arrange the gnocchi on top, overlapping slightly. Melt remaining butter and drizzle over the gnocchi rounds. Sprinkle with the rest of the cheese, and pepper, if desired. Bake until the gnocchi are heated through and beginning to brown, about 15 minutes. To brown top more, broil for a minute or two watching carefully. Let stand a few minutes before serving.

 Semolina and milk will be a thin mixture at first

After cooking, stir in butter & cheese

Spread cooked semolina to about 1/2 think on oiled baking sheet

Ready for the oven topped with butter, cheese and pepper (if desired)

Serve as a main dish or a side

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Cathy Brereton permalink
    March 19, 2011 3:05 pm

    OMG! Want some right now. NOW!

    • March 19, 2011 4:48 pm

      Cathy, Make ’em, Now! You can shortcut it by cooling in the freezer which only takes 15 minutes or so. I bet they’d be good with some cheddar on top (for your kids benefit :). We need to pick a night to do a cooking class!

  2. April 4, 2011 4:41 pm

    Wow, what a great recipe and photos too. I wish I could have supper at your place. Linda

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