On many restaurant menus, gnocchi and their dumpling brethren are treated like the steerage class of the pasta section: There may be one cast away to the bottom of the list, an afterthought given the equivalent of rags—a sad Gorgonzola cream sauce—as its dressing.
But Portland, Oregon-based chef Jenn Louis celebrates and elevates Italian dumplings to VIP status in her new book, Pasta by Hand ($25), a love letter to the dish—some versions well known, others obscure—from regions north, south and in between.
"I realized there was a missing genre of pasta," Louis, the chef/owner of Lincoln Restaurant and Sunshine Tavern, says. "There's no word in Italian for dumpling. All gnocchi are dumplings, but not all dumplings are gnocchi."
So Louis started researching with chef friends and home cooks in the U.S., then traveled all over Italy to learn the craft of dumpling making in both restaurant and home kitchens. One such lesser-known variation she discovered is dunderi (pronounced "dun-dairy"), a pillowy ricotta dumpling from the sunny, pastel-washed Amalfi Coast (see the recipe).
"When I first heard of dunderi, I texted Mario Batali, and he'd never heard of them. He texted Lidia Bastianich, and she hadn't heard of them either—so that speaks to how many regional dumplings are totally obscure," Louis says.
The makings of dunderi are dead simple: Good-quality, firm ricotta is mixed with egg yolks, all-purpose flour ("just enough to hold the ricotta together," Louis says), Parmesan cheese, salt and a tiny bit of freshly grated nutmeg. After they're rolled by hand, sliced and quickly cooked in boiling water, the dunderi are dressed in butter spiked with sea salt and lemon zest and juice—the citrus, a nod to their Amalfi Coast heritage. A healthy shaving of Parmesan, and they're ready to melt in your mouth.
Although dunderi, like most Italian dumplings, are relatively uncomplicated, Louis recommends weighing all the ingredients rather than measuring them to account for differences in the size of eggs, for instance (most Italians, she notes, have a scale in their kitchens). And take the time to practice the recipes without striving for perfection.
"Dumplings are what's called cucina povera, 'the cuisine of the poor,'" she says. "It's how people feed their families. Don't worry about making them perfect. They should be heartfelt and joyful to make."
After spooning bite after bite of creamy, tender dunderi drenched in butter into our mouths, we can tell you they're a joy to eat, too.