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Getting to know gnudi

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You know how a word you’ve just learned suddenly begins popping up everywhere? Well, gnudi have been doing virtually the same lately, showing up on menus in restaurants I’ve visited and in cookbooks I’ve been reading. • But just as that new vocabulary word was always out there but you hadn’t noticed it, gnudi have been around for centuries. And I had known about them for years. I just hadn’t made them or even tasted them. • Gnudi are little ricotta dumplings, best thought of as ravioli filling without the pasta enveloping it. The Italian word “gnudi” means “nudes,” so it’s like nude ravioli. (They are sometimes called ravioli gnudi.) Or ravioli guts. They are similar to gnocchi but much lighter and much easier to make.

I got around to trying gnudi (pronounced NYOO-dee) a couple of months ago. With some super-fresh ricotta – essential for the best flavor – languishing in the fridge, I decided to take the plunge, following a recipe from “The Geometry of Pasta” by Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy. The method is simple: Mix ricotta, flour, egg, grated cheese and seasonings together. (“The Geometry of Pasta” calls for breadcrumbs to bind the dumplings, instead of flour.) Mold into small balls with your hands. Cook in boiling water.

The funny thing is that until finding that recipe, I had scoured more than a dozen Italian cookbooks with no luck. I began to think that gnudi might be a relatively new variation on ravioli. Instead, I found that they date from at least the late 1200s, according to Oretta Zanini de Vita in “Encyclopedia of Pasta,” and predate stuffed pasta.

It’s easy to see why gnudi stuck around. They came out tender and delicious. And although forming the little guys was time-consuming (a small spring-loaded cookie scoop, 1 or 2 teaspoon measure, helps), the gnudi were so easy to make. Much less tricky than gnocchi or ravioli.

Since that initial batch, I have been making gnudi frequently, varying the filling with spinach (a classic ingredient) and butternut squash. They’ve become a house favorite.

If you’ve shied away from making homemade ravioli, what with all the work of forming the pasta dough, rolling, filling and cutting, maybe this project is your warm-up. Or just make gnudi instead and forget the pasta.

Ricotta gnudi

Adapted from “The Geometry of Pasta” (Quirk, $24.95) by Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy. If the ricotta seems wet, let it drain in a sieve, about 30 minutes.

Directions: Mix together 1 cup whole milk ricotta, z cup grated pecorino Romano, 1 egg and 5 to 6 tablespoons fresh breadcrumbs; season with z teaspoon salt and a little freshly grated nutmeg to taste. Let sit so that the breadcrumbs thicken the mixture, 30 minutes.

Heat a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat. Roll the dough into 20-30 small balls with well-floured hands, placing them on a floured baking sheet. You want plenty of flour on the outside of each ball to make a protective skin on the naked mixture.

Carefully slip them into the boiling water. After they bob to the surface, cook, 2 minutes. Remove from pot with a slotted spoon. Serve with more pecorino or with a sauce of your choice.

Makes: 20-30 gnudi, 4 servings

Spinach gnudi

Adapted from “The Italian Cooking Course” (Kyle, $29.95) by Katie Caldesi.

Directions: Cook 12 ounces fresh spinach in a large pot until wilted. Allow to cool; squeeze to remove water. Chop it finely in a food processor. Mix together in a bowl with 8 ounces whole milk ricotta (drained), 1 egg yolk, z cup finely grated Parmesan, z cup flour, z to b teaspoon salt, z teaspoon grated nutmeg and pepper to taste.

Form small dumplings with your hands, using about 2 teaspoons mixture per dumpling. (Tightly pack the mixture so that it won’t break up in the water.) Place gnudi on a floured surface, making sure they don’t touch each other.

Heat a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat; add the gnudi, in batches, being careful not to crowd them. After gnudi float to the surface, cook, 2-4 minutes. Lift them out with a slotted spoon; transfer to a warm serving dish coated with a little olive oil to prevent sticking. Repeat with remaining gnudi.

Meanwhile, for the sauce, melt z stick salted butter with 6 large fresh sage leaves in a large skillet. Toss the cooked gnudi in the butter sauce. Serve, sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan.

Makes: 30 gnudi, serves 4 as a main course or 6 as a starter

Squash and ricotta gnudi

Follow the directions for the ricotta gnudi, using b cup whole milk ricotta, z cup cooked, pureed butternut squash, z cup grated Parmesan, 1 egg yolk, z cup fresh breadcrumbs, z teaspoon salt and a dash of nutmeg. If the squash is wet, allow it to drain before using it. Precooked, frozen squash (defrosted and drained first) works well in this recipe. Add additional breadcrumbs if the dough seems wet.

Get more out of your gnudi

The Italian dumplings gnudi are easy to make, and easier if you follow these tips. Then, once you’ve got the hang of them, try some variations.

Forming: To prevent sticking, spread a layer of flour in a plate or shallow bowl. After forming each dumpling, roll them in the flour to coat all sides. Remove excess flour by gently shaking the dumplings in one hand with fingers splayed somewhat so the flour drops back onto the plate. This should leave you with lightly coated gnudi. Place them on a waxed paper- or parchment paper-lined cookie sheet as you form the remaining gnudi.

Scoop: A 1- or 2-teaspoon cookie scoop with a spring-action release works wonders for portioning the gnudi. You’ll get uniform size, which means the dumplings will cook evenly. The gnudi will grow about 30 to 50 percent as they cook and absorb water.

Test: The dumplings should have just enough flour or breadcrumbs to hold together. The mixture should be a little sticky as you work with it. To test the mixture, form some into a small ball. Slip it into your pot of boiling water. It should cook without breaking up. If it disintegrates, adjust the mixture with more flour or ricotta.

Mix it up: Ricotta with its natural stickiness is the constant that holds gnudi together. But the mixture can be varied to your taste, as long as you don’t tinker too much so that the ricotta can no longer do its job. Along with the spinach and squash variations on the cover, you could mix in fresh herbs. Try adding thyme, parsley or basil. Make sure to chop them finely and to use only a couple of tablespoons or so. A very finely chopped garlic clove would complement the ricotta as well. Nutmeg is a natural with the ricotta and the squash and spinach variations, but how about a half teaspoon of chili powder?

Breadcrumbs: Although flour seems to be the most used binder, we liked the extra texture brought by using breadcrumbs. Be sure to use fresh, not dried. They are easy to make: Just buzz leftover good quality bakery bread in a food processor. If your bread is still fresh, toast it in an oven on low temperature to remove some of the moisture, about 20 or 30 minutes.

Sauces: The gnudi pair well with a variety of sauces. For simpler dumplings, such as plain ricotta gnudi, choose simpler sauces. Serve them in a shallow pool of homemade chicken broth, showered with grated Parmesan, Romano or Asiago. A light tomato sauce also works well with the ricotta gnudi, and is a natural match for the spinach gnudi. We liked the squash gnudi with melted butter in which fresh sage leaves have simmered for a few minutes.

Browning: Boost the flavor. Melt 2 or 3 tablespoons butter in a skillet. Add the cooked gnudi to the hot butter; cook, turning, to brown all sides lightly. (We had duck fat on hand, which worked beautifully. Bacon fat? Even better.)

Basic tomato sauce

Take 1 can (28 ounces) imported Italian plum tomatoes; separate the tomatoes from the juice, reserving the juice. Chop the tomatoes very well on a cutting board or in a food processor. The tomatoes should be chopped finely but retain some texture. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat; add 1 to 2 cloves minced garlic. Cook, 30 seconds. Add the chopped tomatoes; season with a little kosher salt. Simmer until sauce thickens a little, about 5 minutes. If you prefer a looser sauce, add some of the reserved juice and allow it to cook a few minutes. Add julienned basil leaves at the end, if you like.

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