When Top Chef Jenn Louis opened her highly acclaimed New American eatery Lincoln in 2008, she inadvertently started on a journey deep into the heart of Italian cuisine. That wasn’t her initial plan, though. Louis had the goal of making everything in-house (other than the bread), so she bought a pasta sheeter and started rolling out dough. That set her into a spiral of research that recently culminated with the release of her debut cookbook, Pasta by Hand: A Collection of Italy’s Regional Hand-Shaped Pasta.
After the pasta sheeter, Louis moved on to an extruder to make shorter shapes, like cavatelli and gnocchi. When she stumbled across a recipe for malfatti, however, she started to really think about pasta shapes and categories. She read up on pasta lunga, the long strands like spaghetti and fettuccine. She explored the short pastas, such as rigatoni, referred to as pasta corta. She then looked at stuffed pastas, including ravioli and agnolotti, called pasta ripiena. Pastine, the tiny pastas usually used in soups, came next. But when she came upon the last classification, gnocchi, Louis was perplexed. “I started the book unofficially five years ago,” says Louis. “The last category was gnocchi, and it didn’t really make sense to me, because I had all these other shapes that were like gnocchi; they didn’t belong to any other category. Like malfatti — it doesn’t belong to pasta corta or pasta lunga, but it is a pasta shape and it’s more similar to gnocchi. As I started my research, I categorized them as dumplings. But there’s no category for dumplings. Then I realized all gnocchi are dumplings, but not all dumplings are gnocchi.”
This discovery led Louis to dig deep into the world of hand-shaped pasta. She went to Italy to study and ask questions. However, while she thought she found an easy way to group these dumpling-like shapes, she met resistance from chefs and home-cooks in the motherland. Many would laugh, shaking their heads, “No, no. No, dumplings are Chinese food,” she heard over and over again. All of a sudden, Louis had 25 recipes that lived under that same undefined designation; they were doughy, nubby, and hearty. Some had gnocchi in the name, such as gnocchi ricci, a pressed circle that somewhat resembles orecchiette. In the south, semolina flour predominates among recipes. In the temperate center of the country, the doughs are filled with ricotta or potatoes. Others, from the northern regions of the country, are made from dried-out bread. (Winters in the Dolomites were so treacherous, locals had a hard time bringing in food, so bread was made four times a year, some of which was dried out.) “Italy is 100 years younger than the United States as a unified country, so it makes a lot of sense that much of their food isn’t categorized as national, it’s really regional,” says Louis. “So they never really thought about dumplings and all these things that are really similar with different ingredients.”
Because of this, there were no volumes, in either English or Italian, that covered the subject. Fascinated, Louis started shopping the book proposal around about three years ago. Much like the Italians who scoffed at the notion of Italian dumplings, a lot of the agents and publishers she approached didn’t get it. She was told the subject was too narrow. Finally, one picked it up.
Louis started with 25 different recipes for dumplings and expanded to 65. When she began, she knew the basics: potato gnocchi, and gnudi (the ravioli filling without the pasta). Still, she wasn’t sure how to define the category. Was she actually dealing with dumplings? Or was she on the wrong track? She called Marc Vetri and Mario Batali to ask. Both echoed the same sentiment: It’s your book, you get to define it. “I was like, ‘Oh, shit. I’m going to get torn apart when this book comes out,’ ” says Louis. “But nobody has really challenged it.”
Although Louis does not consider herself an Italian chef, the cuisine and technique came to her naturally. After graduating college and traveling around Europe, Louis returned to the States unsure of what to do next. When a friend who was working as a base-camp chef for an Outward Bound program was promoted to instructor, she urged Louis to apply for the position. She did, and she got the job. Louis quickly fell in love with all things food.
Three years later, Louis applied to culinary school in Portland. She did her time, then took an internship at one of the burgeoning farm-to-table spots in town. But rather than go down the traditional culinary route of moving from high-end kitchen to high-end kitchen, Louis opened her own catering company. With little training, Louis cooked what she felt worked and did her own research to back it up. So it makes sense that someone with such a free-spirited nature and desire to acquire knowledge would delve into such an untapped subject. “As a chef, you’re creative and you want to keep learning,” says Louis. “I just kept wanting to learn and progress my cooking. That’s one of the fun parts of our job: Take a subject, blow it up, and create more depth in your own cuisine as well. As I started looking at the subject more and more, it was just delicious. They’re just soulful and delicious. I would liken it to a book about chocolate chip cookies. There aren’t many people that are like, ‘I don’t like chocolate chip cookies.’ They’re delicious.”
Louis will be making appearances in NYC next week, with a dinner at Chefs Club by Food & Wine (275 Mulberry Street; 212-941-1100) on Monday, April 27, at 7:30 p.m. and a demo at Eataly (200 Fifth Avenue) with Batali on Tuesday, April 28, at 4 p.m..
Click to the next page for Louis’s ricotta gnochetti.
In the fall, I dress these gnocchetti with sautéed squash and sage brown butter. In the winter, I serve them with a meat ragù. In the summer, it must be pesto!
480 G/2 cups whole milk ricotta cheese, homemade or store-bought
25 G/1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
Freshly grated nutmeg
125 G/ 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
Semolina flour for dusting
Sauce of your choice
In a large bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, egg, melted butter, and a few swipes of nutmeg. Add the all-purpose flour and mix with your hands just until combined. The dough should be slightly sticky and wet. Do not overmix, as this will make the gnocchetti tough.
Dust 30 g/ 1/4 cup all-purpose flour on the work surface, then scrape the dough from the bowl directly on top of the flour. Sprinkle the top of the dough with an additional 30 g/ 1/4 cup all-purpose flour. This will help prevent the dough from being too sticky to roll.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and dust with semolina flour. Cut off a chunk of dough, about 25 g/ 1/4 cup, and cover the rest with plastic wrap. On a work surface lightly dusted with all-purpose flour, use your hands to roll the chunk into a log about 1/4 inch (6 mm) in diameter. Cut the log into 1/2-inch (12-mm) pieces. Put the gnocchetti on the prepared baking sheets and shape the remaining dough. Make sure that the gnocchetti don’t touch or they will stick together.
(To store, refrigerate on the baking sheets, covered with plastic wrap, for up to 2 days, or freeze on the baking sheets and transfer to an airtight container. Use within 1 month. Do not thaw before cooking.)
Bring a large pot filled with generously salted water to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add the gnocchetti and simmer until they float to the surface, 1 to 3 minutes. Remove immediately with a slotted spoon and finish with your choice of sauce. Serve right away.