baked gnocchi with mozzarella & tomatoes

a classic from sorrento

Five and a half years ago, on my last trip to Italy, we started in Sorrento. It was my first time visiting this cliffside town, surrounded by sunshine and citrus trees and the dazzling Bay of Naples. My husband and I, fresh off an international flight with a connection in Rome, were a little musty, a lot tired, and even more hungry. So, we dropped off our bags and headed straight to our hotel’s restaurant overlooking the bright blue Bay. A few moments later, a plate of pot-bellied cheese ravioli in tomato sauce was placed in front of me. It was simple, and familiar, and perfect.

The honeymoon cheese & herb ravioli from Pasta Every Day. Photo: Nico Schinco; Food Styling: Judy Kim; Prop Styling: Maeve Sheridan

If you’ve been here a while or flipped through a copy of my cookbook, you might know a bit about our time in Sorrento. It inspired one of my favorite recipes, what I call “honeymoon cheese and herb ravioli,” a dish that’s fresh and light, and a reminder of warmer, easier times. Not unlike today’s recipe, the next installment of our baked pasta series: gnocchi alla Sorrentina, Sorrento-style baked gnocchi with mozzarella and tomatoes.

Although baked potato gnocchi covered in cheese might sound heavy, this classic dish from its namesake town is anything but. The dumplings are feather-light and gently tossed in a tangy-sweet tomato sauce before being layered with fresh basil, mozzarella, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The cheese transforms into a crackling crust that bubbles and pulls deliciously when fresh out of the oven. It’s hot and comforting—hugging the belly and the soul like a good baked pasta dish should—while also lifting your tastebuds enough to go back for more. A little burst of August sunshine in the depths of December, if you will.

Gnocchi alla Sorrentina, like much of the area’s cuisine, relies on few, high-quality ingredients. The southern Italian trifecta—mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil—are simple building blocks, but when sourced locally and treated right, they can become a monument of sophistication (pizza margherita, anyone?). Making the gnocchi from scratch takes time, so the dish is typically reserved for Sunday lunch—a chance for the entire family to participate in its preparation—and baked and served in a terracotta dish called a “pignatiello” in Neapolitan dialect. You’ll also find a few alternatives to the traditional recipe, with the addition of vegetables like onions or eggplant, other cheeses like scamorza, or even swapping the tomato sauce for a ragù.

The exact origins of gnocchi alla Sorrentina are hazy. It’s likely the dish was created in the 16th century, around the time potatoes and tomatoes made their way to Italy from the Americas. It was definitely a staple long before the 19th century, when Pellegrino Artusi, widely regarded as the grandfather of Italian cuisine, codified the recipe for potato gnocchi in his 1891 cookbook La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”). Regardless, gnocchi alla Sorrentina is now so popular that you’ll find it gracing tables throughout the peninsula—and, after enjoying it regularly these last few years, it’s easy to understand why.

Two notes before we jump into the recipe:

  • Yes, you can make this dish with store-bought gnocchi if you’re short on time. But I must emphasize that it will taste better if you make the gnocchi yourself. Homemade gnocchi require little equipment and are easy to freeze (instructions follow), so you can make the dumplings in advance, then assemble and bake when you’re ready to eat, cutting your day-of prep time by more than half. (Similarly, the sauce can be made up to 5 days ahead.)

  • The tomato sauce, as with most of my tomato sauce recipes, features tomato passata (passata di pomodoro), also called strained tomatoes or tomato purée. “Passata” means “passed”—these tomatoes have been passed through a food mill and strained of all skins and seeds, leaving behind a velvety purée. It’s made in late summer, at the height of tomato season, and barely cooked so you can count on fresh, bright flavors. (Think of it as the halfway point between canned whole tomatoes and ready-to-eat marinara.) Not only is it common to use passata when making gnocchi alla Sorrentina, but I almost always reach for it over other canned tomato products because of its smooth texture. My favorite brand is Mutti.

Sorrento-Style Baked Gnocchi with Mozzarella & Tomatoes

Gnocchi alla Sorrentina
Serves 4

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Meryl Feinstein