Gnocchi, a traditional Italian dumpling, likely has its origins in the Middle East. It was introduced to Europe as the Roman Empire expanded its territory. Earliest written references to the dish appear in 14th century Italian cooking manuscripts.
Gnocchi is commonly served as an alternative to pasta, prior to the entree. The origin of the word is unknown, though it likely comes from the word nocchio, meaning a knot in word, or nocca, meaning knuckle.
Over time, many regions developed distinct variations on the dish. The most common method of cooking uses boiled potatoes mixed with flour and formed into bite-sized pieces. Ridges are formed along the side to allow sauce to adhere to the dumpling. They are then boiled and served hot. Different flours used include semolina, durum wheat and white. Other variations involve using breadcrumbs or leftover ravioli filling instead of potato.
Gnocchi alla Romana is baked with a layer of cheese instead of boiled. A type of gnocchi called strozzapreti in Florence includes spinach and ricotta. The name refers to the legend that the dumplings were so good, priests choked by eating them too quickly. There are no historical accounts of this happening, however.
Gnocchi has also become popular in South America. Italian immigrants brought the dish to the continent during a mass emigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has since spread to areas with relatively few Italians.