October 30, 2014 04:17 PM

Mark Marino

Welcome back to our new column at PEOPLE.com: the Tiny Test Kitchen. Here, we test recipes from the latest and greatest cookbooks and let you know how it went. Why Tiny Test Kitchen? Because we whip up these dishes in our very own (very tiny) New York City kitchens to show you just how easy or difficult, tasty or terrible the food turns out to be.

THE BOOK: How to Eataly

THE DISH: Gnocchi al Pomodoro Piccante (Potato Gnocchi with Spicy Tomato Sauce)

THE TESTER: Mark Marino, PEOPLE.com deputy editor, @mamarino

I live close to Eataly, NYC’s Italian mega-store, and as impressive as it is with its superdupermarket and many restaurants, the wall-to-wall tourists can make shopping and dining there a challenge. So, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a cookbook called How to Eataly — would bringing it home mean I’d suddenly have mobs of strangers turning up in my small apartment?

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As it turns out, the cookbook is a guide to buying, cooking, and eating Italian food (at least that what the subtitle says). Cooking is what I was interested in, so I decided to try making Eataly’s focaccia. But that involved creating a “starter” (flour and water fermented to form yeast and bacteria — yum!) several days in advance, and my “starter” stopped working after two days, so I opted for the Gnocchi al Pomodoro Piccante recipe instead.

Courtesy: Rizzoli

To get into the spirit, I put on Italian music (“Mambo Italiano” is great to chop to, FYI), and gathered my ingredients. I scrubbed four russet potatoes, then measured out 2 cups of coarse sea salt. I initially thought the salt was to be added to the potatoes after they were cooked, but it is actually used to line the baking dish in which you’ll bake the spuds (Eataly prefers to bake, not boil their gnocchi taters).

Mark Marino

While the potatoes baked at 350 degrees, I prepped the spicy tomato sauce. Instead of the indicated two garlic cloves, I used three, and crushed them with a knife (this is great for getting your aggression out — “Damn you, Ebola!” Smack!). I sautéed the garlic in olive oil with some crushed red pepper flakes, then added a can of crushed tomatoes.

Mark Marino

The recipe called for whole peeled potatoes, but I accidentally bought crushed, which actually worked out in my favor since you’d need to crush the tomatoes if they were whole. Anyway, after 20 minutes of simmering, the sauce looked and tasted great.

Mark Marino

But back to the potatoes. They are supposed to bake for about 40 minutes, but mine were nowhere near done at that point. So I played another round of Italian music, and about 20 minutes later — around  the time I was weeping along to “Al di là” — they were done. I couldn’t figure out what to do with the 2 cups of toasty, coarse salt that remained in the baking dish, since it seemed a shame to throw it out. Real Italians waste nothing — surely they would turn this into a scrub to polish their feet before stomping grapes, or spray paint it different colors and make some kind of artful mosaic, or add a heel of bread, some cheese rinds and a few wilted vegetables to make a salt soup. But I didn’t have time to be creative, so into the trash it went.

Mark Marino

When the potatoes cooled a bit, I peeled them (the crisp, salty peels make a nice snack, BTW) and passed them through a ricer. If you’ve ever used a ricer, you may notice that sometimes a few potato pieces just get mashy but won’t pass through the holes. You should toss those, because they will end up forming lumps in your dough, as I later learned.

Mark Marino

Next, I put 3 cups of flour into a bowl with 1 tablespoon of table salt (the recipe called for fine sea salt, but whatever). After forming the potatoes into a 10-by-10-inch square, I added 2 cups of the flour on top  and kneaded it to form a slightly sticky dough. The extra cup of flour was to be added if the dough was too moist, but I didn’t need it.

Mark Marino

After dividing the dough into about a dozen egg-sized balls, I rolled each one out into 3/4-inch-wide ropes and cut the ropes into 1-inch pieces. (Confession: I’m bad at measuring, so none of my gnocchi were the same size.)

Mark Marino

Then, I rolled each piece agains the back of a fork so that the tines formed grooves in the gnocchi — only the grooves barely formed. But, I pressed on (literally).

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Mark Marino

Now it was time to cook the gnocchi. After bringing a large pot of salty water to a boil, I plunged the potato pasta in, and about a minute later they all came floating to the top and were ready to meet their marinara.

Mark Marino

I plated the gnocchi, added a sprinkle of parmesan cheese and sat down to mangia with my friend Alecia.

Mark Marino

I have to say we both were really impressed with the finished dish. While I haven’t had enough gnocchi in my life to distinguish the really good from the really bad, these were pretty heavenly. Pillowy-soft, almost silky, with a nice mild flavor complemented by a kicky tomato sauce. I would definitely make this again, since it’s pretty low-effort, inexpensive and requires only a few basic ingredients. But next time, I will find a use for all of that leftover coarse salt.

Gnocchi al Pomodoro Piccante
Serves 6 as a first course

4 russet potatoes (about 1 1/2 lbs. total)
2 cups coarse sea salt, plus more for salting the pasta cooking water
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 tbsp. fine sea salt, plus more for seasoning the sauce
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1 (16-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
2. Sprinkle about 1/2 cup of the coarse salt in the bottom of a baking dish just large enough to hold the potatoes. Place the potatoes on the salt, then cover them with the remaining coarse salt. Bake in the preheated oven until easily pierced with a paring knife, about 40 minutes. Set aside to cool. (Discard the salt.)
3. Once the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them and mash them with a potato ricer. (You can use a fork, just be sure to crush them fairly thoroughly and not leave any large chunks.) On a work surface, spread the potatoes into a square about 10 by 10 inches.
4. In a bowl, combine 2 cups flour and 1 tbsp. fine sea salt. Sprinkle the flour mixture evenly over the potatoes.
5. Knead the potato mixture (use a bench scraper to help you get started, if necessary) until the mixture is uniform and forms a soft, still slightly sticky dough. If the dough is too sticky, add the remaining 1 cup flour in small amounts, but the less flour you manage to add, the lighter your gnocchi will be.
6. With a knife, cut the dough into equal-size pieces roughly the size of an egg. Working one at a time, roll the pieces into ropes about 3/4 inch wide. Cut the ropes into 1-inch pieces.
7. Pick up one piece of the dough, roll it over the back of a fork, and let it drop onto the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough. The resulting gnocchi will be slightly curved with grooves that will capture the sauce. Dust the gnocchi lightly with flour and set aside.
8. Place the olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until garlic is fragrant and just light brown. Add the tomato juices and the tomatoes to the pan, crushing them by hand as you do. Season to taste with salt. Simmer the sauce until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes.
9. Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the gnocchi. When the water is boiling, salt it, then add the gnocchi. Cook the gnocchi until they rise to the top of the water, about 1 minute. As they are finished cooking, remove them to a colander with a slotted spoon.
10. Spread a small amount of the tomato sauce on the bottom of a serving dish. Add the drained gnocchi, then spoon the remaining sauce on top. Toss to combine. Drizzle with a little olive oil and serve immediately

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