Vincenzo Giangiordano knows gnocchi.
His grandmother taught him how to make the pasta-like dumpling when he was a boy in Abruzzo, Italy, east of Rome. It was on the family table every Sunday night.
“The rest of the week was pasta,” he says, “but every Sunday, it was gnocchi,” giving the “gn” dipthong an extra-authentic twist for emphasis.
Vincenzo brings that authenticity and passion for pasta to Terza Ristorante in Rochester, where he’s in charge of making pasta, from angel hair and tortellini to specials such as a squid-ink pasta called chitarra that’s cut with a device that looks more like a hammered dulcimer than a kitchen tool.
He makes the pasta daily, and gnocchi is his favorite. Judging by the number of menus it’s now on in the Rochester area, gnocchi is an area favorite as well, which means it’s primed for the Four Stars treatment.
Vincenzo, 43, has been cooking since he was 9, and he worked in kitchens in Florence, Venice, Rome and elsewhere before coming to Rochester. He showed photographer Ken Klotzbach and me how he makes gnocchi one day last week in his quiet room downstairs, below the kitchen. He mixed a pound of semolina flour with three pounds of cooked potatoes and mashed them together with gloved hands until it was well-blended. “This is where the muscle comes in,” he said.
Then he worked in 3 1/2 ounces of grated Parmesan cheese, three tablespoons of kosher salt, a half-cup of extra-virgin olive oil and a cup of egg yolks. When the light golden loaf of dough was ready, he carved it into slices with a pastry blade, then cut it further into 1-inch square pillows of pasta, enough for about 20 orders.
The pasta is poached for about a minute — “when they begin to float to the top, it’s ready,” he said, as he skimmed them from the kettle — and then they’re ready for whatever comes next. At Terza, you can choose red or green gnocchi — in a light pomodoro (tomato) sauce or a more lively pesto, which is vividly green and aromatic, and topped with grated pecorino (goat cheese). Both are $21, though if you just want to sample Vincenzo’s handiwork, there’s an antipasti option for $10.
Gnocchi also turns up as a special at Terza, tossed one night recently with a melange of the house-cut salumi — prosciutto, soppresatta, mortadella and molinari — and sauteed with wild mushrooms and wine for an intensely dark, flavorful sauce.
Ask Vincenzo what the secret to his gnocchi is and he’ll focus on technical details such as the specific milling of the flour, but his boss, Executive Chef Miguel Santana, cut to the chase and said, “It’s the passion. He loves to make pasta.”
At the Port Restaurant in Red Wing, they take gnocchi on the road to France, which is only fair — it’s a cousin of dumplings from other European cuisines. The Parisian Gnocchi ($21) is melt-in-your-mouth tender and served in a light hazelnut cream sauce, freshened up with chervil, the French parsley with a hint of anise flavor.
The pasta is sauteed with white wine and traditional French mierpaux before the cream and hazelnuts hit the pan, says junior sous chef Jacob Van Houten. You can pair the Frenchified pasta with a Paris cocktail, the Boulevardier — a Negroni with bourbon rather than gin — from the Port’s “Prohibition classic” bar menu.
The gnocchi has been on the menu for three or four months and the Port makes seasonal changes, so if you’re interested, don’t wait, Jacob says. Main Street is currently torn up right in front of the hotel, so watch the signs for how and where to park.
About 10 miles upriver, at Treasure Island Resort’s Tado restaurant, they have a house-made gnocchi that might be the most creative and crowd-pleasing dish I tried. The pasta was perfectly cooked and piping hot in a light alfredo sauce, with hot red peppers, a handful of grilled corn kernels and topped with shredded Parmesan. At $17, it’s a great deal on a fairly pricey menu.
Victoria’s Ristorante, Rochester’s longest-running Italian restaurant, naturally has gnocchi among its dozens of pasta entrees. The gnocchi are a bit larger and cheesier than some, with a rich, garlicky pomodoro sauce, and it’s a generous serving ($16.95, $12.95 at lunch), which is always true at Victoria’s.
Agree or disagree? Know of other gnocchis I should try? (There’s a dish at the Ole Store in Northfield that I hope to get to, next week.) Send me a note and I’ll check it out.
FOUR STARS OF GNOCCHI
30 Third St. SE, Rochester
VICTORIA’S RISTORANTE AND WINE BAR
7 First Ave. SW, Rochester
THE PORT RESTAURANT
St. James Hotel, 406 Main St., Red Wing
Treasure Island Resort and Casino, Red Wing