Chef Greg Vernick’s Late-Summer Saffron Ricotta Gnocchi with Tuna ’Nduja

From Philadelphia's Vernick Fish, this creative riff on a traditional southern Italian sausage-and-pasta dish is easier than it sounds. Plus, 11 wine-pairing picks

Chef Greg Vernick’s Late-Summer Saffron Ricotta Gnocchi with Tuna ’Nduja
Chef Greg Vernick's seafood restaurant makes the most of traditionally underappreciated ingredients in dishes like this saffron gnocchi with tuna 'nduja and broccoli rabe. (Ted Nghiem)
Aug 28, 2020

For many chefs, including Greg Vernick, the path to a culinary career started the same way: Growing up immersed in the family business. “You just kind of get it in your blood,” says Vernick, whose Philadelphia-based group includes local hot spots Vernick Food & Drink, a modern American eatery, and the seafood-focused Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner Vernick Fish. “A lot of my childhood memories take place in my mom’s restaurant.”

It was at that casual luncheonette in Haddonfield, N.J., where Vernick first played around with pairing flavors in the kitchen—or as he puts it, “concocting bizarre combinations of ingredients” in plastic sauce-on-the-side containers. “Then I would walk around to the staff and make them eat it. And thank goodness they did,” he recalls with a laugh. “I feel so bad for whoever had to try those.”

Today, Philadelphians line up for Vernick’s concoctions. After a summer job at a short-order café on the Jersey Shore solidified his devotion to cooking, he earned culinary and hospitality management degrees and went on to work in acclaimed Boston and New York kitchens, including those of Jean-Georges Vongerichten. “I really did love it,” Vernick says. “And I still love it, strangely enough.”

Family continues to be a cornerstone of Vernick’s career. His wife, Julie, is his business partner in charge of back-office operations—despite several warnings. “One of the more common pieces of advice I’ve gotten when we were first going down this road was don’t go into business with your wife,” Vernick says. But after a decade of being stuck in kitchens for 15-hour days, Vernick says working together is a kind of luxury for the couple, not to mention a productive partnership. “She’s transparent with me, there’s a good sense of honesty, and I need that in my life,” he says. “I don’t want people to bullshit me.”

Chef Greg Vernick
Philadelphia-based chef Greg Vernick has a passion for seafood that sparked the concept for his second restaurant, Vernick Fish. (Ted Nghiem)

During the coronavirus dining-room shutdowns, his group is serving locals through its Vernick at Home takeaway service, featuring Vernick Food & Drink’s signature made-to-mix-and-match menu of small and large plates, along with wines from their adjacent retail shop. Vernick Fish, located in Philadelphia’s Four Seasons hotel, is holding off until dine-in service resumes. It’s a day the chef is eager for, especially considering his profound passion for seafood, the backbone of this recipe he shares for Labor Day.

Tuna ’nduja debuted on the opening menu at Vernick Fish. Tuna trim is repurposed into a play on a ’nduja, a flavorful, spreadable spiced pork sausage from Italy’s Calabria region. It’s served with gnocchi made from ricotta cheese instead of potato and enhanced with the heady aroma of saffron. With sturdy greens and fresh herbs, the recipe is well-suited for a late-summer celebration, adapted into a version with easer-to-find sushi-grade tuna.

The dish was inspired in part by the movement in the restaurant industry to reduce food waste, making use of traditionally discarded cuts and scraps and turning them into something exquisite. “I love proving people wrong about seafood,” the chef says. “The last possible option for seafood should be to throw it out.”

Waste reduction is just one of many eco-friendly and educational philosophies built into the restaurant. Others include showcasing the vast diversity of seafood—“It doesn’t just have to be tuna, bass, salmon, cod”—and countering ideologies that Vernick believes are misguided, such as the idea that we should only be eating wild, ocean-caught fish. “Aquaculture is a major market and it is getting better every year, and fish farming is important and necessary,” Vernick says. As he explains it to the group’s cooks and servers, “if we did not eat farmed salmon, wild salmon would be extinct.”

To craft this dish at home, combine the ’nduja ingredients gently, but don’t stress about getting it perfect. “You could literally take these ingredients, chop them finely with a knife and just mix it in a bowl over ice with a wooden spoon, and you could achieve a very similar product that would be delicious,” he says.

Then get to work on the gnocchi, which Vernick also suggests is easier than it sounds. “I think gnocchi is an intimidating thing for a lot of home cooks when it shouldn’t be,” he says. “With a ricotta cheese gnocchi, it’s really just binding cheese with a little bit of flour and egg, and that’s it.” They can even be made in advance and frozen.

Once everything comes together, the ’nduja will “render out this spicy and briny and flavorful fat that ends up becoming the sauce for the pasta,” brightened with the freshness of broccoli rabe, which the restaurant swaps out for corn during peak summer.

Four Seasons beverage director Jill Davis’ wine-pairing suggestion is featured on the wine lists at both Vernick restaurants: Fonterenza Le Ragaze Toscana Bianco, a lively 50-50 blend of Vermentino and Trebbiano with some skin contact. Just like the dish, the wine ties into the restaurant's environmentally mindful ethos. “The winery was founded in 1997 by two sisters,” Davis says. “They grow their grapes biodynamically, use minimal intervention in the winery, and overall follow traditional and natural winemaking principles.”

Flavor-wise, she says the pick works on two levels. “First, the wine is super fresh, which will balance with the tuna ’nduja, cleansing your palate between each bite. Secondly, the slight weight and roundness that the skin contact brings the wine will match the texture of the gnocchi and ricotta combo.” So while experiencing Vernick Fish first-hand isn’t an option right now, treating yourself to this showstopping entrée with an expertly paired wine at home might be the next best thing.


Saffron Gnocchi, Tuna ’Nduja and Broccoli Rabe

Ingredients

For the tuna ’nduja:

  • 5 ounces sushi-grade tuna (or tuna trim)
  • 3 ounces pork fatback (available from a reputable butcher)
  • Dash of curing salt
  • 1 tablespoon powdered milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon water
  • 1/2 tablespoon Aleppo pepper (or substitute chile flakes)
  • 1/2 tablespoon pimentón (or paprika)
  • 1/4 teaspoon chile flakes
  • Special equipment (optional): grinder attachment for stand mixer or manual meat grinder

For the saffron ricotta gnocchi:

  • 1 heaped teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1 1/2 cups ricotta
  • 4 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons salt, plus more for salting water
  • 1 egg
  • 3/4 cup 00 flour, plus more for flouring

For the broccoli rabe:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for greasing sheet pan for gnocchi
  • Two bunches of broccoli rabe leaves and stems, finely chopped (chiffonade)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Salt

To garnish:

  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 1 teaspoon chopped chives
  • 1 teaspoon chopped parsley
  • 1 teaspoon chopped tarragon

Preparation

1. For the tuna ’nduja: Measure all dry ingredients, then toss with the meat and fish to combine. Store in the freezer until partially frozen, about 90 minutes, and grind through a medium-size die to ensure clean cutting through the grinder attachment. If a grinder is not available, a fine chop with a heavy, sharp chef’s knife will work. Once ground, knead the sausage meat for about 2 minutes until it becomes slightly sticky to touch. (This is an important step.) This can be frozen and stored, but if you’re making everything the same day, store it in the fridge until ready for use.

2. For the ricotta gnocchi: Measure all the ingredients. In a small sauté pan, lightly toast saffron over medium heat for 10 to 15 seconds until fragrant. Mix all ingredients, except the flour, thoroughly in a mixing bowl with a large spoon. Once all the ricotta curds have been broken down and the mixture is completely homogeneous, fold in the flour to incorporate, but avoid overmixing. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and let rest for about 20 minutes for the flour to fully hydrate.

3. After 20 minutes, cut the ball of dough into four even pieces. Lightly flour each piece. On a large clean surface, one by one, using light pressure with both hands, roll each piece out into an even "snake" that is about 1/2 inch in diameter. The light flouring should be enough to prevent it from sticking to the surface. With a paring knife that has been floured, cut the snake into 1-inch pieces. Repeat with the 3 other pieces of dough. Fill a wide pot with lightly salted water and bring to a simmer. In batches that fit inside the pot, poach the gnocchi for about 90 seconds to 2 minutes. With a strainer tool, remove gnocchi from water and place on an oiled sheet pan until they cool. They can be used immediately or chilled and saved for the next day.

4. In a large sauté pan over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the ’nduja until lightly caramelized and broken into crumbles. Add broccoli rabe and sauté, adding 2 tablespoons of butter and a generous pinch of salt. Drop the gnocchi in salted boiling water for 90 seconds until warmed through, then add to sauté pan along with a few ounces of the pasta cooking liquid to help emulsify your sauce. The gnocchi are delicate, so do not toss too firmly or stir aggressively. Add more pasta water if you see it looking dry. To finish, add lemon juice and the chopped herbs. Serves 6.


10 Lively White Wines

Note: The following list is a selection of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More options can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.

COLLEMASSARI

Vermentino Montecucco Melacce 2018

Score: 90 | $22

WS review: A fresh, lively style, sporting apple, peach, lemon curd and saline notes. Sleek and well-defined by the vibrant structure and lingering with a hint of bitter grapefruit. Drink now. 6,600 cases made. From Italy.—Bruce Sanderson


DOMAINE VETRICCIE

Corse White 2018

Score: 90 | $28

WS review: Juicy and forward, with pink grapefruit, tangerine and white peach flavors. Bright and well-defined, showing a flash of shortbread on the finish. Drink now. 28,000 cases made. From France.—James Molesworth


HARETER

Chardonnay Burgenland Ohne 2015/p>

Score: 89 | $32

WS review: A distinctive version of Chardonnay, with obvious skin contact, showing delicate tannins and zesty flavors of orange peel, while hints of straw and honeysuckle add another dimension. A good introduction to this style of wine. Drink now through 2023. 500 cases made. From Austria.—Aleksandar Zecevic


MONTE DEL FRÀ

Lugana 2018

Score: 89 | $14

WS review: A creamy, medium-bodied white, with sleek acidity framing the plump flavors of golden apple, guava, fresh tarragon and pink grapefruit pith. Spiced finish. Drink now through 2022. 12,500 cases made. From Italy.—Alison Napjus


ROSARUBRA

Trebbiano d'Abruzzo 2017

Score: 89 | $33

WS review: A creamy, medium-bodied white, with soft citrus peel acidity and a hint of cherry blossom wafting through the flavors of almond pastry, fennel seed, mandarin orange peel and fleur de sel. Drink now through 2022. 1,000 cases made. From Italy.—A.N.


TERENZUOLA

Vermentino Colli di Luni-Tuscany Vigne Basse 2018

Score: 89 | $17

WS review: A saline, mineral component underlines this rich white, with apple, grapefruit and sage flavors focused by bright acidity. Shows fine balance and length. Drink now through 2023. 3,333 cases made. From Italy.—B.S.


ARGILLAE

Orvieto 2018

Score: 88 | $18

WS review: This zesty, light-bodied white offers layers of ground white pepper, pink grapefruit zest and fresh tarragon notes, with flavors of nectarine, star fruit and stony mineral. A bright and lively lip-smacker. Trebbiano Toscano, Grechetto, Chardonnay, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. Drink now through 2021. 1,666 cases made. From Italy.—A.N.


ARGIOLAS

Vermentino di Sardegna Costamolino 2018

Score: 88 | $19

WS review: Delicate herb and pink grapefruit zest notes enliven the creamy flavors of nectarine, almond blossom and saline in this lively, medium-bodied white. Tangy finish. Drink now through 2021. 54,166 cases made. From Italy.—A.N.


MONTE DEL FRÀ

Custoza Superiore Cà del Magro 2017

Score: 88 | $20

WS review: Minerally hints of smoke and stone underscore the flavors of melon, orchard blossom and preserved lemon in this fresh, light- to medium-bodied white, with a creamy finish. Trebbiano Toscano and Garganega. Drink now through 2021. 7,500 cases made. From Italy.—A.N.


DOMAINE PETRONI

Corse White 2018

Score: 88 | $25

WS review: Yellow apple, fennel and white peach flavors form the mix here. Gently buttered, with a rounded feel, but maintains a fresh edge throughout. Drink now. 8,000 cases made. From France.—J.M.

Recipes Cooking Holidays / Celebrations White Wines Seafood Italy

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