Gnocchi Alla Sorrentina (Baked Gnocchi With Tomato and Mozzarella)

[Gnocchi-making photographs: Vicky Wasik. All others: Daniel Gritzer]

Close your eyes and imagine a bubbling baking dish filled to the brim with plump potato gnocchi, melted mozzarella cheese, summer-sweet tomato sauce, and fragrant basil, topped with a crispy crust of Parmigiano-Reggiano. That’s gnocchi alla Sorrentina, a baked pasta from Sorrento, a town just south of Naples on the Amalfi coast. It deserves just as much attention as beloved pastas “al forno” like lasagne alla Bolognese and baked ziti.

With so few components—just potato gnocchi, tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil, and Parmesan—there are really only two things you must know to make it worth your while.

Gnocchi Alla Sorrentina Rule 1: Resist Shortcuts

I can just see the gears turning in so many readers’ minds: “This could be such an easy weeknight dish, if only I bought some packaged gnocchi, grabbed a jar of pre-made tomato sauce, and skipped the little Italian shop downtown where they sell the good mozzarella in favor of the low-moisture stuff in the supermarket dairy aisle.”

I know it’s tempting, but don’t give into those urges. Those who do won’t be happy with the results, then they’ll leave disappointed reviews on this recipe, and we’ll all be sad.

As with so many Italian recipes, the spare ingredients are laid bare, and lesser-quality items have nowhere to hide. You need the good stuff here: homemade gnocchi, a quick tomato sauce made from passata (or whole canned tomatoes in purée), and truly fresh, made-that-day fior di latte (cow’s milk mozzarella)—the milkier, the better.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a little. You might be able to get away with second-tier fresh mozz, that several-days-old stuff that’s called “fresh” but really isn’t. It’ll melt and still be tasty. But please avoid low-moisture mozzarella, which melts well but has none of that fresh milk flavor—it won’t do you any favors here.

And the tomato sauce? A good one will do the job, even if it comes from a jar, but it won’t be quite right. Instead of the ideal right-off-the-vine, ripe tomato flavor, you’ll get a heavy dose of garlic and specks of woody dried oregano. Save that stuff for meatballs, if you can.

As for the gnocchi, I get it—they’re the most laborious part. Of course buying them is desirable. But packaged gnocchi usually taste like compressed cardboard, and there are no strong flavors in gnocchi alla Sorrentina to cover that up. And speaking of gnocchi…

Gnocchi alla Sorrentina Rule 2: Forget Feather-Light Gnocchi

Gnocchi “as light as clouds” have become a food-world fetish, and while there’s nothing wrong with striving for that, it’s also not a requirement of good gnocchi. For a dish like gnocchi alla Sorrentina, it can even be a problem. The sequence of blanching the gnocchi, then tossing them in sauce, then spooning them into a baking dish, then baking them, and finally scooping out portions onto serving plates puts the little potato dumplings through a lot of handling, and thus the risk of breaking apart and collapsing as a result.

For a recipe like this, you need gnocchi that have enough structure that they’ll hold their shape and won’t melt into a starchy potato porridge by the end of cooking. This means adding more flour than the bare minimum one might use when feather-light gnocchi are the goal. The quantity of flour listed in the recipe below is more than I might use for the lightest gnocchi, but it’s still just a starting point: You may need to add more flour, depending on how humid your kitchen and potatoes are, to achieve a dough that is moist and tender and can hold its structure. Too little, and the resulting wet and sticky dough may leave you with a mashed-potato casserole, not gnocchi alla Sorrentina.

This is hardly a compromise—homemade gnocchi with a little extra heft are still worlds better than the best packaged stuff.