Gnocchi are the little pillows of the dumpling world. At their best they are soft and light, resting in a sauce oozing with cheese. At their worst they are leaden blobs. For something made with few ingredients — potatoes, egg, flour — they are surprisingly difficult to get right.
I was thrilled to discover wonderfully light gnocchi at Madonia [1297 Long Ridge Road, Stamford (203) 322-8870, http://www.madoniarestaurant.com]. The former Giovanni's Steakhouse in North Stamford was transformed by new owner and executive chef Enzo Bruno and his partner wife. It's warm and cozy, yet understated. By day, lots of big windows let sunlight pour into the dining room. By night, gray-green walls are lit by sconces. Madonia also has a banquet room with a fireplace, and a glass-walled wine room that seats 10. This "sleeper" of a restaurant is popular for holiday gatherings — especially with free limo service for parties of 10 within a five-mile radius.
Gnocchi are one of the most popular dishes on the menu now, along with five-hour short ribs and tuna tartare with avocado-corn relish. The chef, who comes from Calabria, Italy, has also created "Sole Riviera" — mild fillets with charred yellow and red peppers, peas and sweet Moscato vinegar to "enrich but not overpower, to give a balance of sweet and sour." He places fresh mozzarella on the fish so it warms but doesn't melt. Interesting.
The night I tried the gnocchi they were dressed with marinara sauce. Sometimes as a special, Bruno serves gnocchi in a porcini, cremini and oyster mushroom cream sauce. "Gnocchi are very versatile," he says.
The secret to making light gnocchi, Bruno says, "is for the potato to be as dry as possible so it won't absorb as much flour and be starchy and heavy." He boils starchy (not waxy) potatoes, mashes them, lets them sit in the refrigerator overnight to dry, and then mixes them with all-purpose flour and a little fresh nutmeg, salt and pepper. "We don't work the dough for too long. As it starts to amalgamate, that's enough."
I decided to make gnocchi at home. I pored over my cookbooks — Marcella Hazen, Lidia Bastianich, Giuliano Bugialli — for proportions. First attempt — heavy gnocchi. Then I discovered a Tom Colicchio recipe. I poked Idaho potatoes with a fork, baked them for an hour, split them to release steam, pushed them through a ricer, spread the fluffy strings of potato over a large area to cool and then drizzled them with egg yolk. I sprinkled flour over them, worked the dough into a ball, divided it in three, rolled the mixture into one-inch thick logs, cut them into half-inch pieces, rolled each with my finger, boiled them until they floated to the top and then 30 seconds more, scooped them into an ice bath and then into a buttered dish, covered them with a quick tomato sauce, sprinkled them with cheese and baked. Whew! The result? Light. OK.
Worth it? Next time the craving for gnocchi strikes, I'm going to Madonia.