Do Not Sleep on a Brooklynite’s Recipe for Pizzeria-Perfect Garlic Knots

“Cooking with Nonna” host Rossella Rago opens up a delicious page of her third cookbook

December 12, 2022 6:45 am
Chef Rossella Rago's garlic knots
Like many good things, garlic knots allegedly originated in Brooklyn.
Harper Horizon

From pita bread, to hamburger buns, to English muffins, pretty much any bread can become garlic bread if you just believe.

It’d be great to say the same about garlic bread’s more complicated cousin, the garlic knot, but that’s simply not the case. It requires a bit more than belief to recreate the NYC pizzeria staple that was allegedly first sold on Avenue X in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay neighborhood in 1947. Making garlic knots, which have a history that’s fairly difficult to unravel given their relative simplicity, requires a recipe. Luckily, Cooking with Nonna host Rossella Rago — a self-taught cook who was born and raised in Brooklyn by parents who emigrated from a small fishing village in Southern Italy — has one.

Rago, who recently released her third cookbook Cooking with Nonna: Sunday Dinners with La Famiglia, spent most of her 20s wishing there was a garlic knot–scented candle and is upset that it still doesn’t exist now that she’s in her 30s. But for Rago, who still cooks as much as she can with her 89-year-old nonna Romana, the obsession with garlic knots dates back to the pizza parlors of her youth.

“I associate garlic knots with old-school Brooklyn pizzerias that had fruit punch fountains,” she says. “I would walk into those places when I was a little girl and the smell of garlic knots would hit me in the face before anything else. They were always sitting on the counter, but if you knew the guy, he’d heat you up a fresh batch in tin foil in the pizza oven. There’s nothing quite like biting into a fresh garlic knot. Nothing.”

Garlic knots are far from fancy. They are simply buttery balls of leftover pizza dough that have been seasoned with garlic and parsley. Nevertheless, they still manage to be decadent, according to Rago.

“People think of them as a pizzeria item, but if I went to an Italian restaurant and they came around with a bread basket filled with garlic knots, I’d be the happiest person in the world,” she says. “They have flavor notes of regular garlic bread, which can be a bit boring, but they also have that buttery, palatable fat all over them. They’re dense with crisp skin on the outside, but the inside is still doughy and nice and thick. That’s my jam. They’re divine. A perfect carb covered in butter, garlic and parsley.”

Garlic knots are typically served with a miniature Styrofoam cup of tomato sauce, but Rago prefers them plain. “I’m a purist, so I want to taste all the flavors of the garlic knot itself,” she says. “It’s not my favorite thing to use the marinara because I feel like it hides the garlic and butter. But if that’s your jam, that’s your jam. I don’t tell people what to do. You gotta give ’em the option.”

And you certainly do have the option to try Rago’s recipe for garlic knots. But she does have a few requests. “When you’re working with a recipe that has very few ingredients, use the freshest, best ingredients possible,” she says. “The best quality olive oil. Fresh garlic you peel yourself. Fresh parsley, never dried. Try and elevate the ingredients as much as you can because it really makes a difference. If you’re going to serve this with marinara, just try the garlic knot without any sauce first. You’re allowed to dip, but only after you’ve tried it in its natural state. Garlic knots can even be a meal if you cut them open to make a tiny little sandwich. Put some mozzarella inside, have a party.”

Party on.

Rossella Rago's Garlic Knots

Total Time: About 3 hours

Servings: 16 garlic knots

  • 2 cups 00 flour
  • 1 ¾ cups semolina flour
  • 1 ½ cups warm water, 110 to 115 degrees
  • 2 ¼ tsp. (1 envelope) active dry yeast
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil, plus more for greasing the bowl
  • 1 ½ tsp. granulated sugar
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 8 Tbsp. (1 stick) salted butter
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ cup fresh parsley, minced
  • 1 ½ tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ¼ cup grated Pecorino Romano
  • To make the knots
    1. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the 00 and semolina flours. In another large mixing bowl, combine the water, yeast, oil, sugar and salt. Let stand until the yeast bubbles, about 5 to 10 minutes

    2. Begin incorporating the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients with your hands and mix until a dough forms. If the dough is too sticky, add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time until the dough comes together and no longer sticks to your hands. Shape the dough into a firm, supple ball.

    3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide it into 16 equal pieces. Dust each piece with a little flour and quickly shape into individual balls. Roll out each ball into a 5-inch rope then tie it into a knot.

    4. Place the knots on a baking sheet lined with either parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel, and let rise in the oven with the light on for 30 minutes.

    5. Remove from the oven. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Return the knots to the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the knots are golden brown. While the knots bake, make the garlic topping. 

  • To make the topping
    1. In a small pan, melt the butter on medium-low. Add the garlic and simmer for 1-2 minutes, or until fragrant. Do not let the garlic develop any color.

    2. Add in the parsley, garlic powder and salt, and stir to combine. Remove from heat and cool for 5 minutes.

    3. Transfer to a large mixing bowl, add a few garlic knots at a time and tumble until coated. Sprinkle with the grated Pecorino Romano and serve warm!

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