Tortellino is one of the noblest examples of Italian stuffed pasta, a vast category comprising dozens of shapes, different types of pasta dough and fillings. Among its numerous variants, the most world famous and iconic is certainly that of Emilia, whose birthplace may be located in an area between Bologna and Modena – more precisely, in Castelfranco – where it is celebrated throughout town in September.
The term “tortellino” derives from "torcere", meaning “to twist” and refers to the way in which the piece of pasta is folded and twisted around the fingers to form its typical shape. The first evidence of this type of pasta takes us back to the 1500s and, down through the centuries, its variants have increased to such an extent that the Confraternity of Tortellino felt the need to codify its recipe in 1974. The filling must contain pork loin, Parma ham, the typical mortadella of Bologna, Parmigiano Reggiano, egg and nutmeg.
The pasta sheet must be rolled out by the so-called "sfogline", women armed with a wooden rolling pin shaped to suit their build, who prepare a fine sheet of pasta and then proceed to make tortellini by hand. Today, there are more and more men who learn this technique at the schools for sfogline in Emilia Romagna, before exporting it worldwide. As far as the pasta dough is concerned, the traditional rule of one egg to 100 g of flour still holds good but, here too, a bit of experience is called for: you need to know by just handling the dough when it has reached the right consistency with sufficient moisture and when it is fine enough to enhance the filling but not too thin to cause the tortellino to fall apart during cooking. In brief, to be perfect, a tortellino has to reach the delicate balance between content and container.
The most purist of foodies are horrified whenever they see tortellini served with cream on “Italian” restaurant menus outside of Italy: in fact, the authentic recipe calls for tortellini to be served in nothing but a mixed broth of beef and boiling fowl or capon in the winter months. In the absence of a good broth, rather than say no to a delicious plate of tortellini, ask for it to be served with a little butter. There is no celebrity chef in the world who fails to tremble before a dish of tortellini: either he patiently learns to prepare a perfect sheet of pasta or should forget it. And rarely does anyone in Italy dare to reinterpret the recipe.
Even the great Massimo Bottura in his Osteria Francescana has learned the art from housewives and does not dare to make any drastic changes. He has simply reduced the shape into tiny gems, sometimes dressed with a delicate cream of Parmigiano, but he has never dreamed of revolutionizing the concept. At present, for example, they appear on the menu as “tortellini in a broth of everything” in the wake of his new mission to waste absolutely nothing.
The most famous and apparently simple variant of tortellino is cappelletto. It starts out as a little pasta square rather than a circle and, whilst tortellino contains meat only, in certain areas, cappelletto may be meatless, that is, filled with spinach or chard and ricotta cheese or just grated parmesan. Tortellino is and will always be the noblest encounter between home cooking and starred cuisine. When faced with a tortellino, both parties can only bow to its perfection, possibly inspired by a quotation from an Emilia-born poet to celebrate this dish: “Tortello is a dish full of thoughts”.