refrigerator section of grocery store showing various fresh pasta options
Home » Italian Food Basics » Gnocchi Vs Pasta – What’s The Difference? + When To Use Them

Gnocchi Vs Pasta – What’s The Difference? + When To Use Them

Last updated on May 8th, 2024

Are you looking for an alternative to pasta?

Are you wondering what the difference is between gnocchi and pasta? 

While most people are certainly familiar with pasta, gnocchi is Italy’s less common sister – a first-course meal made from potato instead of wheat. But that’s not the only difference! 

In this article, we will cover gnocchi vs pasta from every angle! I will go over:

  • which ones are best for which sauces
  • how they compare side-by-side
  • how they are made
  • how to serve and enjoy each

Gnocchi Vs Pasta At A Glance

gnocchi for sale in a clear pan with black price tag from side view
made from potatomade from wheat
freshly madefresh and dried
flavored with beet, spinach, squashflavored with beet, spinach and squid ink
store bought and homemadestore bought and homemade
considered a dumplingnot a dumpling
first coursefirst course
light and airysturdy with a bite
cooks in a couple of minutescooking time varies
low glutenhigh gluten
fewer carbohydrates and caloriesmore carbohydrates and calories
northern Italian first coursefirst course popular throughout Italy

How To Pronounce Gnocchi

Gnocchi is pronounced nyowk-kee in Italian. In Italian, gnocchi actually means ‘lumps’, which is exactly what they look like. 

Listen to the pronunciation of gnocchi:

What Are Gnocchi?

top view of white plate filled with gnocchi and topped with red sauce and cheese.
The gnocchi with tomato sauce I order when I am in Rome

Gnocchi are a kind of Italian dumpling most commonly made from cooked, mashed potatoes, flour and eggs. They are most often small, bite size, about ¾ of an inch long and dressed in various sauces. 

Traditionally, gnocchi is made from semolina or white flour but they may also be made with other flours as well. They might also include ingredients like cheese such as ricotta, vegetables and herbs for added flavor. 

Fact: The singular form of gnocchi is gnocco but you probably won’t ever hear that in Italian as no one is just making or eating one gnocco

Because gnocchi are primarily made from potatoes, they are high in carbohydrates but low in protein and gluten. 

History Of Gnocchi

The concept of making dumplings in Italy is old but the gnocchi as we know them today is relatively new. Potatoes were not introduced to Italy until the 16th century and it was then, that the tradition of the potato gnocchi was included into the rotation of hearty, local dishes of the cucina povera. 

Originally, dumplings were made with squash and bread crumbs but when Italians soon saw how well potatoes grew in northern Italy, the potato gnocco took off! 

What Do Gnocchi Taste Like

Gnocchi have a pretty bland flavor themselves. All their flavor is going to depend on what kind of sauce you serve them with. 

Gnocchi are very light and airy, like a dumpling should be. Expect them to melt in your mouth. You really shouldn’t be chewing hard to enjoy them and if you are, then unfortunately, you have some back gnocchi on your plate!

Gnocchi Variations

top view of white plate with gnocchi dressed in a gorganzola sauce
Beet root gnocchi with gorgonzola and walnut sauce

Just like pasta, the kind of gnocchi you find in Italy will depend on what region you are visiting. Sometimes they are larger or smaller, some with or without ridges. Other times, they will be flavored with things like spinach or beet, ricotta or parmesan cheese.

In Tuscany, there is a ricotta, spinach version known as gnudi or malfatti which are larger and served in a butter and sage sauce. 

How To Make Gnocchi

top view of several whole potatoes on a marble background

Gnocchi are made by creating a soft dough of potato, egg, flour, salt and any other ingredients that add flavor such as beets. 

Once the dough has come together, the dough is rolled out into long ropes and cut into small, bite size pieces. The gnocchi are then pressed against a fork or a special gnocchi board to create small ridges that are meant to help the sauce stick to the dumpling. In Italy, you will also see them liscio or smooth, privy of any ridges. 

If you don’t cook gnocchi within a couple of hours, they should be frozen until ready to boil. 

How To Cook Gnocchi

Pasta and gnocchi are very easy to cook, both requiring similar cooking methods. In Italy, gnocchi are most always boiled before being dressed in a sauce. Follow these instructions for boiling gnocchi:

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, at least a 6-quart pot. Use cold water. Keep the pot covered.
  2. Salt your water well. Use 2 tablespoons of rock salt (it has a different sodium content than table salt) for every 6 quarts of water. Stir well.
  3. Add your gnocchi to the boiling water and start a timer according to the package instructions. Stick close to the pot because they cook very quickly.
  4. Immediately stir the water to keep the gnocchi from sticking and continue to stir every 30 seconds. Keep the water at a rolling boil, uncovered. 
  5. The moment the gnocchi rise to the top, drain them immediately. 
  6. Return the gnocchi to the pot, and toss with your chosen sauce. Don’t rinse your gnocchi. 

In America, many restaurants have taken to pan frying their gnocchi, which is another alternative, although not very traditional here in Italy. This makes for a crisp exterior and fluffy interior. Gnocchi can also be baked in a tomato or bechamel sauce.

How To Serve Gnocchi

close up of gnocchi alla romana garnished with parsley served in a white ceramic dish
gnocchi alla romana

Because gnocchi are quite plain and flavorless, you can really dress them as you wish. The most beloved Italian ways are the simplest, embodying local ingredients and produce. Be creative and don’t let Italian traditions hold you back from serving gnocchi with whatever sauce you like! 

Gnocchi are a primo or first course in Italy, meaning they won’t be served with anything else. Unlike in the US, gnocchi won’t ever be served on a plate with other food. When you order gnocchi, expect to get a large plate piled high!

Popular Sauces To Serve With Gnocchi

  • con burro – with butter
  • con gorgonzola e noci – with gorgonzola and walnuts
  • con verdure – with seasonal vegetables
  • con sugo di carne – with meat sauce 
  • con pesto – with pesto
  • con pomodoro – with tomato sauce 

Popular Italian Recipes With Gnocchi

zoomed in of gnocchi dressed in a bright red tomato sauce
gnocchi alla sorrentina

How To Pronounce Pasta

Pasta is pronounced pah-stah in Italian.

Listen to the pronunciation of pasta:

What Is Pasta?

close up of maccheroni pasta covered in tomato sauce and garnished with basil chopped up

Pasta is a kind of Italian food made from unleavened dough of wheat flour, water, salt and sometimes egg, depending on the type of pasta. The pasta shapes are then boiled or baked until perfectly al-dente or cooked to the bite before being dressed in various regional pasta sauces.

Fact: Most Italian pasta is made from durum wheat, a high gluten wheat that grows particularly well on the Italian peninsula.  

How Pasta Is Made?

top view of wooden board with homemade pasta scattered with a sack of flour and rolling pin

The way in which pasta is made varies greatly depending on the type of pasta. Fresh pasta is typically made by creating a smooth, elastic dough from flour, salt, water and sometimes egg and then cutting the pasta into the desired shape. 

How To Make Homemade Pasta

Tray of handmade pappardelle pasta drying. Woman's hands are holding it above the table.

In Italy, most homemade pasta is still made and cut by hand. Pasta machines are not nearly as common as they are abroad. 

After the dough has been formed and has had time to rest, it’s rolled out and hand cut into the desired shape. If it’s filled, it will be rolled out into sheets, filled with small teaspoons of filling and then cut out and folded according to tradition. 

If pasta is not being cooked within hours of being made, it should be refrigerated. 

How Dried Pasta Is Made

Hand holding package of La Molisana brand of maccheroni pasta.

Pasta secca or dried pasta is usually made from just durum wheat, water and salt. Sometimes, eggs are added but the most conventional, everyday Italian pasta is not. 

Fact: Dried egg pasta, called pasta all’uovo has its own section in the supermarket next to the other pasta secca. 

The process of making commercial pasta is made similar to homemade pasta but it’s shaped using molds and dried in a controlled environment before being packaged for a shelf life of about one year. The best dried pasta is shaped with bronze molds and made with 100% Italian durum wheat. 

Learn More: For more information on the best pastas in Italy, read Italian Pasta Brands – That We Actually Use in Italy.

How To Cook Pasta

spaghetti being cooked in a large pot of water from birds eye view

The cooking of pasta is very similar to gnocchi, except that the cooking time will vary significantly, depending on the type of pasta you are making. Fresh pasta will cook in just a couple of minutes like gnocchi but dried and stuffed pasta will take a bit longer.

  1. Fill a very large pot with at least 6 quarts of water for 1 lb of pasta
  2. Cover and let come to a rolling boil
  3. Salt water with 2 tablespoons of rock salt for 6 quarts of water
  4. Add pasta and stir immediately. Keep the water at a rolling boil
  5. Keep stirring every 2-3 minutes to ensure it doesn’t stick
  6. Check pasta 1-2 minutes before the indicated cooking time
  7. Save a cup full of pasta water to add to your sauce later, if need be. 
  8. Drain well in a colander. Do not rinse the pasta. 
  9. Toss with your sauce, adding the pasta water if it’s too dry. 

Cook Like A Pro: For a full guide to cooking pasta well read Is it Illegal to Break Pasta in Italy? + Quick Guide to Italian Pasta Etiquette and What Does ‘al Dente’ Mean?  Plus the Trick to Make Perfect Pasta Every Time!

Types Of Pasta

top view close up of 4 rectangle bunches of dried egg tagliatelle on a marble board

Every region in Italy has their own kind of pasta, each distinct to what is in season and locally produced in that geographical location. Below you will find a list of the most common types of pasta in Italy:

  • pasta all’uovo – egg pasta either fresh or dried 
  • pasta secca – dried pasta, typically made with durum wheat and water
  • pasta fresca – fresh pasta made from durum wheat and water
  • stuffed pasta – tortellini, tortelli, mezzelune, agnolotti, ravioli, cappelletti, etc.
  • flavored pasta – flavored with ingredients like squid ink, beet and spinach 

Shapes Of Pasta

close up side view of glass case with various fresh, stuffed pastas for sale

Beyond the kind of pasta you can enjoy, there are also over 100 different shapes of pasta, each one designed to hold a different sauce and be enjoyed in a different way. 

Main Categories of Pasta Shapes:

  • Strand pasta like spaghetti and bucatini
  • Short pasta like penne, farfalle, fusilli, and maccheroni
  • Ribbon pasta like tagliatelle, pappardelle, and fettuccine (oftentimes egg pasta)
  • Small pasta such as orzo or fregula 

Tubed shaped pasta is best known for meaty sauces because they hold up well to the heaviness, allowing the meat to get stuck into the pasta holes. 

Strand pasta such as spaghetti is better for fresh sauces such as fish and tomatoes. 

Small pasta shapes are ideal for adding to soups or broth. This is a typical Italian way to bulk up a simple meal like beans, chickpeas (called pasta e ceci in Italian), homemade broth and vegetable soups.

How To Serve Pasta

close up of white plate with tagliatelle dressed in ragu sauce on a white marble background showing on right hand side of picture.

Just like gnocchi, pasta is a primo or first course in Italy. This means pasta will be served without any other food with it. Don’t expect to get a plate with a side of vegetables, a portion of pasta and a side of grilled sausage. Rather, pasta should be served on a plate by the moundful! 

Popular Italian Pasta Recipes

Close up of dish of pappardelle pasta with ragu. You can also see glass of water, glass of wine, and side of bread basket.
  • Penne pasta alla valdostana (Aosta Valley) – with fontina and ham
  • Orecchiette con cime di rape (Puglia) – with turnip greens
  • Spaghetti alla puttanesca (Campania) – with olives, tomatoes and capers
  • Tortellini in brodo (Emilia-Romagna) – stuffed pasta in broth
  • Tagliatelle al ragù (Emilia-Romagna) – with meat sauce
  • Carbonara (Lazio) – with egg and bacon (a must-try egg dish on your Italy trip!)
  • Cacio e pepe (Lazio) – with black pepper and pecorino romano cheese
  • Trofie al pesto (Liguria) – fresh pasta with pesto
  • Pasta alla norma (Sicily) – with tomato and eggplant
  • Bigoli in salsa (Veneto) – handmade spaghetti with onions and anchovies

Read More: For a comprehensive list of the most famous Italian sauces and dishes to try in Italy read 30 Most Popular Italian Pasta Sauces (That We Actually Eat Here in Italy) and Famous Italian Pasta Dishes – by Region

How To Use Pasta

top view of pasta al forno on a red and blue tablecloth in a rectangle white casserole dish with a silver spoon

Pasta is one of the most versatile dishes as it can be changed in an instant depending on the type of sauce you choose to dress it in. Pasta is super versatile and can be added to any number of dishes. 

Popular ways to use pasta:

  • served with pasta sauces
  • made into a baked pasta such as pasta al forno or lasagne
  • turn leftovers into a frittata (Italian omelet) 
  • add it to soup such as minestrone
  • in a pasta salad

What To Pair With Pasta

close up of white dish with tagliatelle with zucchini on a table with a yellow paper mat with bread in background on small white plate and glasses with water in background at a table

The wine you choose to serve with your pasta will depend on the sauce. If you are serving a hearty tomato or rich meat sauce, a full-bodied red wine is best. 

If, on the other hand, you are serving pasta with a fish sauce or with a vegetable base, a white wine is going to pair much better.

Pairing pastas with wine is also very seasonal. Winter pasta dishes are much more heavy and filling, made from lots of meat. In the summer, however, Italians are much more likely to use fresh produce and seafood for a lighter summer lunch, much better paired with a crisp white wine. 

Pairing Tip: When traveling in Italy, the local pasta is usually best paired with a local wine as they are both made with the local harvests. Ask your server for a recommendation or for a wine that is produced locally! 

Can You Substitute Gnocchi For Pasta?

For many dishes, you can absolutely substitute gnocchi for pasta. Remember, each pasta shape and pasta sauce was designed to be paired specifically with its mate but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun mixing and matching. Want to serve gnocchi con pesto instead of pasta with pesto? Great! A crowd pleaser for sure! Do you feel like turnip greens and gnocchi? It will be delicious! Will an Italian do it? No, but don’t let that stop you!

Gnocchi Vs Pasta FAQ

Is pasta or gnocchi healthier?

Pasta is more caloric and higher in calories while gnocchi has less gluten. They are both carb heavy but one is not considered more or less healthy than the other. A lot depends on what sauce is being served with it.

Do Italians consider gnocchi pasta?

Italians consider gnocchi a dumpling but it is still considered a first course or primo just like pasta. Because of this, an Italian would never order pasta and also gnocchi in one sitting. 

Does gnocchi have less calories than pasta?

Regular pasta, although higher in protein, is more caloric and carb-heavy than gnocchi. Gnocchi is also lower in gluten compared to regular pasta.

Can I replace pasta with gnocchi?

Yes, you can absolutely replace pasta with gnocchi but be aware that the texture is going to change significantly. While gnocchi can be defined as having a soft, pillowy texture, similar to a dumpling, pasta is more substantial with a bite. Be sure to cook gnocchi for just a few minutes as the package directs. 

Are gnocchi gluten-free?

Gnocchi are usually not gluten-free because they are traditionally made with flour. Some regional varieties such as gnudi from Tuscany, are more likely to be gluten-free. Be sure to ask your waiter before ordering if you have a serious allergy.