Shaped by tradition

Classic Tuscan dumplings let rustic flavors shine through

By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / May 18, 2011

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Malfatti are tender spinach and ricotta dumplings whose name translates from the Italian to “poorly made,’’ which is a misnomer, of course. You can make them well — and easily.

In some parts of Italy, the dumplings are called ravioli gnudi or just gnudi (naked) because the spinach mixture, which might elsewhere be used as a filling for ravioli, has no pasta wrapper. Both malfatti and gnudi are considered peasant food: simple, rustic, and inexpensive.

Though the dumplings require little effort, they are time consuming because they’re shaped by hand. At Bina Osteria in the Theatre District, malfatti are cooked to order. Chef Will Foden serves them drizzled with browned butter, garnished with shaves of Parmesan and crispy sage leaves. The treatment reflects the chef’s respect for ingredients; he likes to let the flavors shine through.

“It’s a classic Tuscan dish,’’ he says, “but something you don’t see that often here.’’ Foden, 33, learned to make malfatti last winter while working at a hotel and winery in Cortona, Italy. He went to learn more about Tuscany’s traditional foods, but the chef isn’t new to Italian cuisine. He worked for Dante de Magistris at both Blu and Dante. In January he joined the team at Bina Osteria as chef de cuisine.

For home cooks, Foden suggests making a big batch of malfatti and freezing them until cooking time. He recommends using either spinach or Swiss chard, but not tougher textured greens like kale or collards, which are too strong. He usually mixes some baby arugula in with the spinach to add a subtle peppery bite. With frozen spinach, the dumplings won’t taste as fresh or be as vibrantly colored.

Foden shapes the spinach-ricotta mixture, which is bound with an egg and a little semolina flour, into ovals with a slight triangular shape, that he deftly forms using two spoons. Home cooks can try this or shape the mixture with their hands.

The key to tender dumplings is to eliminate excess liquid. Drain the spinach and wring out moisture first with your hands, then in a kitchen towel. Let the ricotta drain in a fine-mesh sieve over a bowl overnight.

If there’s too much liquid in the mixture, you’ll need more flour, explains Foden, “and too much flour makes the dumplings tough.’’

If you’ve ever eaten leaden gnocchi you’ll know what he means. The idea is to turn the translation of malfatti around so it makes no sense.

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at