Pastas abound in Italy, but none quite have the legend that tortellini does. The navel-shaped pasta has a story all its own, and while tellings of the legend vary, the basics remain the same: when an innkeeper in the Italian town of Castelfranco Emilia saw the naked navel of Venus, the goddess of love, he created a tribute to her in the form of a pasta that resembled her belly button.
Why was the goddess of love visiting an inn in Italy in the Sixteenth Century? That is a part of the story that is usually glossed over.
While that’s the way the legend goes, chances are this pasta was created as many other pastas were; sometime around 1570, when the first tortellini recipe was developed, someone was searching for a way to make a pasta stuffed with filling. They found that solution by folding the pasta around their fingertip to prevent the meat filling from spilling out during cooking.
Whichever origin story you prefer, tortellini holds a special place in people’s hearts and stomachs, in Bologna and Modena, which is apparent during an Emilia Romagna cooking vacation. In fact, tortellini is considered Bologna’s number one gastronomic tradition. As such, the town of Castelfranco Emilia celebrates tortellini every year with a festival to honor the legendary creator of the pasta dish.
In general, tortellini is always made with an egg pasta, but what you fill it with varies from family to family. Traditionally it is filled with a mixture of prosciutto and parmesan, but some will pack it with ricotta, others with different cheeses. Still others prefer beef, and sometimes it’s a combination of all of the above. No matter what the filling, tortellini are traditionally served in a broth.
Tortelloni, the larger version of the pasta, you will often find served with a butter and sage sauce, or sometimes with cream, peas, and ham. I once had a friend who always ordered tortellini with a Bolognese sauce, a really hearty dish!
Tortellini in brodo, the classic preparation, is a dish served commonly at holidays such as Christmas. Historically, the ingredients involved were expensive, and were warranted only when it was time to celebrate.
The tortellini-making tradition is a sacred one in Emilia-Romagna, but it’s one the locals are willing to share. During our cooking vacation “Foodie Tour on the via Emilia: Parma and Bologna,” visitors can learn the technique behind this special dish, along with a few other pasta dishes.
Learn more about stuffed pastas in Italy on a culinary vacation with The International Kitchen!
By Peg Kern
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A shorter version of this blog post was originally published January 9, 2014.