While I love cooking food from all over the world, I feel a particular kinship with Italian cooking. But, funny enough, I have no Italian family members and I’ve only been to Italy once. The reason I am so tied to Italian cuisine is partly romantic and partly practical.
My family immigrated to America from Ukraine just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the way to America, many Jewish immigrants, like my parents, stopped in either Italy or Austria while their immigration papers got sorted and finalized. My mother was traveling with her parents, my father alone. They were introduced one afternoon by a mutual friend and mamma mia! They fell in love. During his time in Italy, my father took any odd job he could find—folding beach chairs, delivering groceries. There was no extra money for fancy restaurants, so he wined and dined my mom the most affordable way he could: by cooking. To this day, my brother and I joke about how our dad actually became Italian during his year there. Growing up, we mostly went out for Italian food, and Dad was known for his cioppino more than for his borscht. Somewhere along the way, his love for eating and cooking Italian food rubbed off on me.
Nowadays, cooking is the one thing that helps me stay sane—it’s my weekday mediation. I don’t really use recipes or look at my phone, and I tune out everything outside of my Brooklyn apartment. My mind is quickly at ease, no matter how much or how little I have accomplished that day. Cooking brings me back to who I am outside of an employee, a friend, a partner. It brings me back to a title-free Jane.
On busier days, where I walk into my apartment and immediately drop all my belongings on the floor, I know that I'll lean on my old friend fresh pasta because it cooks fastest and still feels like a proper meal. Little pillows of gnocchi with a blanket of cheese and marinara is one of my go-tos, mostly because it requires only a handful of ingredients. (I just named 3 out of 5 of them!) There is a little chopping and crumbling, but the most fascinating step this recipe lacks is mixing.
This baked gnocchi eliminates one crucial step that's generally key to a solid baked pasta: Mixing the sauce in. Where pasta starts to dry out immediately after being strained, gnocchi does not. By carefully spooning the sauce atop the potato puffs and not mixing, pockets of tomato sauce form in every nook and cranny of the baking dish. Some sections will even caramelize! The gnocchi will absorb some of sauce, but most will remain untouched.
The best part is that every now and then, you’ll drag a one through the sauce and discover melted cheese that’s being kept warm by the heat of the rich marinara. And is there really anything better than awaiting that kind of cheese surprise? Not in my book.
Warm, Cheesy Baked Gnocchi
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound fresh gnocchi
1 cup marinara sauce
¼ pound fontina cheese, cubed
1 sprig fresh basil, chopped or torn
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Add olive oil to your baking dish (I used a 24oz au gratin dish from Le Creuset) and rub oil all over the pan with a pastry brush or paper towel. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Salt the water generously. When the salt has dissolved, add the gnocchi and cook for 3-4 minutes, until they float to the top.
Once the gnocchi are floating, use a slotted spoon to remove them from the boiling water, being sure to shake off any excess liquid.
Place them into the oiled dish and add cubed fontina, distributing evenly.
Spoon over 1 cup marinara gently. Do not mix.
Bake the pasta for 10-15 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the sauce is bubbling.Remove from the oven and snip fresh basil over the top. Enjoy immediately!