Gnocchi, small and delicate dumplings, are one of Italy's most interesting and least known pastas.

It is not easy to explain or describe gnocchi. Made from several farinaceous foods and in a number of forms, almost every region has a version. Cookbooks define gnocchi as the plural for gnocco, or dumpling. Gnocchi (pronounced n'yock-kee) is actually the Italian word for lumps.

The ancient Romans made an early version of gnocchi with a flour and water dough which was probably shaped into lumps and boiled. Today gnocchi alla Romana , with semolina, milk, eggs and seasonings, is prepared as a thick porridge which is cooled, cut into small circles or strips, and baked with melted butter and grated parmesan cheese. Sometimes minced ham is added to the basic mixture.

The only classic Italian dish featuring the potato is a variety of gnocchi made with a dough of mashed potatoes, flour, eggs, and butter which is rolled and cut into small cylinders. After gentle boiling, the gnocchi are served with butter and parmesan cheese or various sauces. A variation is the addition of ground poultry or meat to the basic dough which, when cooked, may be covered with a sauce and baked.

Gnocchi verdi is a delicate combination of spinach, ricotta and parmesan cheeses, eggs, and nutmeg made into a firm mixture that is shaped into small balls, cooked in boiling water, then baked with generous toppings of melted butter and grated cheese.

Tuscans are fond of cornmeal dumplings covered with tomato sauce and grated cheese. A specialty of Genoa is made with potato gnocchi topped with pesto sauce (a combination of basil, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil).

Two exceptional dishes of the Piedmont region feature native ingredients. Boiled cylinders of potato gnocchi are baked with sliced fontina cheese, sliced white truffles, and melted butter, and then served with tomato sauce and grated cheese. Gnocchi ala fontina is made with subtly flavored semolina dumplings boiled in spiced milk in which some fontina cheese has been melted. Then the cooked gnocchi are rolled in egg, breadcrumbs and fried.

In Sicily, pillas are baked semolina gnocchi rounds spread with a wine-flavored meat sauce, sliced ham, tomato sauce, and grated cheese. A traditional holiday dish in Rome is gnocchi made of a nutmeg-flavored soft flour dough that is cut in diamond shapes and baked with a topping of melted butter, grated cheese, and cinnamon.

Other variations are gnocchi rolled in breadcrumbs and fried in deep fat; oblongs of cheese-flavored flour-dough gnocchi baked with a cheese sauce; and baked ricotta cheese gnocchi with a cheese sauce.

Gnocchi are not difficult to make but they should be prepared with care and skill so the finished fumplings are light and tender. They are nutritious and inexpensive as well as attractive.

Given below are recipes for three of the best known gnocchi dishes which may be served at first courses or accompaniments. The potato gnocchi may be covered with a tomato, mushroom, meat, or cheese sauce and baked and served as a light entree for luncheon or supper.

GNOCCHI VERDI

(4 to 6 servings) 1 package (10 ounces) fresh spinach or 1 package frozen chopped spinach 1/2 cup ricotta cheese 1 egg, slightly beaten 6 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese, preferably freshly grated 1/4 cup all-purpose flour Salt, pepper to taste 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg 1/4 cup butter or margarine, melted

Clean and wash fresh spinach: or defrost frozen spinach. Cook with only water clinging to fresh leaves (or add only a small amount of water if frozen) over low heat a few minutes, until tender. Drain off the liquid, pressing firmly with a spoon or squeezing with the hands until spinich is thoroughly drained. Chop finely, removing and discarding any tough stems.

Combine in a bowl with ricotta, egg, 3 tablespoons parmesan and flour. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg; mix well. The mixture should be firm. If sticky, add a little more flour. Chill in refrigerator 1 hour or longer, until quite firm.

With floured hands, form into 1 1/2-inch balls. Drop gently, a few at a time, into a large saucepan of simmering, salted water. Cook gently, uncovered, until balls rise to the top. (This will take about 1 1/2 minutes. If they stick to the bottom of the pan, they may need prodding.) Let cook on the top about 1 minute longer, until puffed slightly and tender. Total cooking time is about 5 minutes.

Remove with a slotted upon to a buttered shallow baking-and-serving dish. When all are cooked, pour melted butter over dumplings. Sprinkle with remaining grated parmesan. Bake in a pre-heated 450 degree over 5 minutes. Serve at once from baking dish.

GNOCCHI ALLA ROMANO

(6 to 8 servings) 3 cups milk 1 teaspoon salt Few grindings black pepper Pinch ground nutmeg 3/4 cup semolina or farina 2 eggs, beaten 2/3 cup grated parmesan cheese, preferably grated 1/4 cup butter, melted

Put milk, salt, pepper and nutmeg in a mediumsized heavy saucepan. Bring milk to a boil. Add semolina or farina in a steady stream, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Cook over moderate heat so milk is still bubbling, stirring constantly and vigorously and scraping sides and bottom of pan, until mixture is so thick that the spoon will stand upright in it. This will take several minutes.

Remove from heat. Add eggs and 1/3 cup parmesan; mix well. Turn mixture onto a buttered cookie sheet and spread evenly about 1/4-inch thick. Refreigerate 1 hour or longer, until firm. Cut into 1 1/2- or 2-inch circles and arrange, overlapping each other, in a buttered large shallow oveal or rectangular bakign dish. Sprinkle up with melted butter and remaining parmesan. Bake, uncovered, in a pre-heated 400-degree oven until golden crisp, about 15 minutes. Serve at once from baking dish.

Note: I made this successfully with Cream of Wheat but, of course, semolina or farina is better. Left over gnocci can be fried.

POTATO GNOCCHI

(6 servings) 2 cups warm, finely mashed potatoes (unseasoned) 1 egg 2 teaspoons olive oil 1 teaspoon salt 1 cup all-purpose flour (about) 1/3 cup melted butter 1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese

Put potatoes in a large bowl. Add egg, oil and salt; mix well. Add flour and blend with a fork. The amount of flour required will depend on the moisture content of the potatoes and size of egg. Use enough to make a firm soft dough.

With the hands shape into a large ball and turn onto a floured surface. Knead dough, adding more flour if dough sticks to surface. Shape into a loaf and put on a floured surface. Cut off a piece of the dough and with floured hands roll into a long rope about 1/2 inch in diameter. Cut into 1-inch long pieces. Roll each piece gently and touch in the center to give the piece a bow shape. Continue rolling and shaping until all dough is used.

Cook pieces by dropping a few at a time into gently boiling salted water. As they are done the gnocchi rise to the top. Cook gently on top about 1 minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain. Spoon onto a pie plate and keep warm in a low oven. Sprinkle with melted butter and cheese. Serve at once or heat about 10 minutes in a 375 degree oven.