Let me set the stage for this meal for you. Early evening in Florence, walking around the Oltrarno. It had been such a hot day. So hot. And we had climbed and climbed up to the Piazza Michelanglo to get a view of Florence, of the Duomo dwarfing every other building in sight, of the Arno and the bridges that cross it, of the hills in the distance. It had been so hot and we, sweaty, had bought a cold bottle of water and sat at a plastic table in a little patch of shade while people emerged from the stairs, breathless at both their exertion and the view. We sat there for a long time as it cooled down and the sun began to set, and a man with a guitar started plugging together his microphone and speakers and singing in front of us, and groups of friends found seats with bottles of wine they had brought up with them.
We were getting hungry and so we climbed back down the hill and started looking for a restaurant we had heard of but forgotten to bring directions to. We made our way to the Piazza Santo Spirito and found some WiFi and looked up directions to the Quattro Leoni, but by the time we made it there, there were no tables and wouldn’t be until 9:30 that evening. But I was so hungry and turning grouchy and so we made our way back to the Piazza, what seemed like a whole square of restaurants with a little park in the center, and we found ourselves at Enoteca Santo Spirito, a funky little place with the best gnocchi I had in Italy.
I’ve tried my best to replicate it at home. I did my best to keep my gnocchi light and fluffy and I researched Italian cheeses to finally decide on the combination I wanted to use. I even bought a bottle of truffle oil. It was more expensive than I would have liked, but I knew that if I didn’t have it in the dish instead of concentrating on the delicious cheesiness of the sauce or the fluffy pillows of gnocchi, I would only be able to notice the missing truffle oil.
And it was good. It was so very good. But of course, not the same. I think traveling does that for us; it makes our meals magical in ways we can never truly reproduce as home. And we remember that we can’t exactly go back. That evening was a once in a lifetime–a view I may never see again (although I so hope I do), a meal that I cannot exactly replicate, a time in life that will never be exactly the same because that day was only once. But we can do our best to remember, and sometimes it’s as easy as a plate of good food.
Yes, I realize this recipe includes truffle oil and it is kind of expensive. If you’d rather not buy it, don’t. It will still be delicious. Store-bought gnocchi would also obviously be fine here, and would make this recipe as easy as melting butter and flour on the stove and whisking in some milk and cheese.
Prep Time: 1 hour
Bake Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
For the gnocchi:
2 lb. russet potatoes (about 2-3 medium sized potatoes)
1 large egg
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
For the sauce:
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
4 cups milk
Pinch of nutmeg
1 cup freshly grated Fontina cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Drizzle of truffle oil
1. Begin by baking the potatoes for the gnocchi. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Wash the potatoes off and dry well. Place the potatoes directly on your oven racks and bake for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until a fork can easily pierce the potato and they give slightly when you squeeze them. Remove from oven and let cool for about 30 minutes.
2. Using a vegetable peeler or a sharp knife, peel the potatoes. Then pass the potatoes either through a food mill or potato ricer into a large bowl, or grate them through the large holes of a box grater. (They may break apart a bit as you grate them, but just do your best and mash any parts of potato that crumble away and won’t go through the grater with a fork.)
3. Add the egg and salt to to the potatoes and stir together to combine. Add 1/2 cup flour and mix to combine. Add another 1/2 cup of flour and mix together. Then add 1/4 cup of flour and mix. If the dough still isn’t coming together add the last 1/4 cup a tablespoon at a time until the dough comes together (it will still be a good bit sticky).
4. Spread a bit of flour across a board or counter top and dump the dough onto it. Knead it slightly, just a couple of times to help it come together more.
5. Divide the dough into quarters. Roll each quarter into a long rope, about 3/4 inch thick. Then use a small knife to cut the gnocchi into pieces that are 3/4 inch long. Place the gnocchi on a baking sheet that is either lined with parchment paper or dusted with cornmeal. If you’d like to freeze the gnocchi, place the baking sheet in the freezer until the gnocchi are frozen. Then place them in a zip top freezer bag. (They can be cooked frozen; they just take a minute longer.)
6. Set the gnocchi aside while you make the sauce. In a large saucepan, heat the butter over medium-low heat. When the butter is melted, add the flour and cook together, whisking constantly, for 1-2 minutes. Increase the heat to medium and slowly begin adding the milk, just a couple of tablespoons at a time, stirring constantly. Once the first cup or so milk has been added, you can add larger amounts each time. After the milk has been added, season the sauce with a good pinch of salt and pepper and a small pinch of nutmeg. Continue to cook and stir until the sauce is slightly thickened. Then add the cheese to the sauce and stir until melted. Turn the sauce on low to keep it warm while you cook the gnocchi, coming back to stir it occasionally.
7. Bring a medium sized pot of salted water to a boil. Add 1/4 of the gnocchi in and cook until they float, about 2-3 minutes. Scoop the gnocchi out with a strainer or slotted spoon and then add the next 1/4. Continue to cook in batches until it is all cooked.
8. Once the gnocchi is all cooked, add it to the cheese sauce and stir together. Then ladle the gnocchi/cheese sauce into a buttered baking dish (any size/shape will work as long as it keeps the gnocchi in a shallow layer, or use a variety of smaller dishes for individual serving).
9. Top the gnocchi with the 1/2 cup Parmesan and then a small drizzle of truffle oil. Place under the broiler in the oven for 5-10 minutes, until the top is bubbly and golden brown. Let cool for 5-10 minutes before serving.