The story goes that Tortellini were invented by an innkeeper in the late 15th century when he peeked through the keyhole of the room where the beautiful Lucrezia Borgia was staying. Able to see only her navel as she undressed, he ran to the kitchen and created a pasta shape to remind him of that sight.
Another story has it that Venus and Jupiter were sharing a room and the peeping innkeeper caught sight of her navel through the keyhole. Captivated, he invented the pasta shape that is still known today as The Navel of Venus. However Tortellini came to be, they endure as a fixture of Emilia-Romagna’s cuisine, especially at Christmas time.
Emilia-Romagna (e-mi-li-a ro-ma-nya) was once a stronghold of the Etruscans before the Gauls forced them out in the 4th Century BC. The Romans arrived in the 2nd Century and built the famous Via Emilia, a Roman road along which market towns grew up. Most of those towns are still there today. After the fall of Rome, the Byzantines ruled over a golden age of art and architecture. Treasures such as the the magnificent Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna were built, and Europe’s first university was founded in the city of Bologna.
Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna
After hundreds of years of struggle, the Renaissance Pope (and patron of Michelangelo) Julius II finally conquered Emilia-Romagna for the Papal States. Later, it was parcelled out to various ruling families who remained in power until the Napoleonic wars of the 19th century. Emilia-Romagna was one of the first regions to join the struggle for the unification of Italy in 1859. One of her native sons, Giuseppe Verdi, fanned the flames of that nationalist passion in operas that tell the stories of enslaved people longing for their homeland. So powerful was that message for Italians living under foreign rule, that Va Pensiero, the moving chorus sung by Hebrew slaves in the opera, Nabucco, was sung by thousands of Italians in the streets as they followed Verdi’s funeral procession in 1901. In more recent times, Emilia-Romagna gave the world Frederico Fellini, one the greatest and most influential film directors of the 20th Century. Today, the area is one of the richest regions in Europe with an automotive industry that includes Ferrari, Ducati, Lamborghini and Maserati.
Considered by many to be Italy’s greatest gastronomic treasure, Emilia-Romagna’s food, like her history, is rich, a bit extravagant and a source of great pride. Bologna, the pasta capital of the world, is nicknamed la grassa, “the fat one”, reflecting the lavish use of butter, cream and pork fat in her cuisine. Egg pasta is an art form here that is truly revered. A glass case in the Bologna Chamber of Commerce holds a solid gold replica of a “perfect” tagliatelle: 1 millimeter thick by 6 millimeters wide. They are serious about pasta! They are serious about food.
gold replica of the exact shape of tagliatelle at the Bologna Chamber of Commerce
This region is truly the soul of Italian cuisine and home to many of Italy’s most renown foods: Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma ham, Mortadella (the original “baloney”), and that nectar of the gods, Balsamic Vinegar. Not to be confused with the $3.99 stuff from the grocery store, Traditional Balsamic is the end product of many years--sometimes 100 or more--of aging a concentrated reduction of white grapes in a succession of different wooden casks in order to produce a sweet-tart syrup that can cost hundreds of dollars per ounce. And if pasta is king of Emilia-Romagna’s table, then stuffed pasta is his diadem. Tortelloni (Tortellini’s big brother), Caramelle (shaped like a wrapped caramel candy), Agnolotti (half-moon shapes) and Tortellini, the navel of Venus--these are just a few of the stuffed pastas that crown this region’s cuisine. Below is a recipe for Tortellini (also known as Cappelletti for their resemblance to little hats). These are made in huge quantities in family kitchens all over this region and served on Christmas and New Year’s Day in chicken or capon broth. On the 14th of December we will be making them in our kitchen. Come and join us!
¼ pound prosciutto, finely diced
¼ pound mortadella finely diced
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ pound grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
½ pound pork loin, cubed and browned in
½ cup unsalted butter
2 Tbsp chopped Italian parsley
1 egg yolk
freshly grated black pepper to taste
Combine the meats, cheese and parsley and chop finely by hand. The filling should have a little bit of texture. You can do this in the food processor if you are disciplined enough to stop before it turns into a paste.
Stir in the egg yolk and taste for salt and pepper.
Make an egg pasta dough with 3 eggs, 1 ½ cups flour and a teaspoon or two of milk to keep it moist.
Roll the dough out to a 1mm thin sheet (about half the thickness of a dime).
Cut the dough into 1 ½ inch squares.
Put about ¼ tsp filling on each square.
Fold each square in half and seal the edges.
Fold the filling up toward the point of the triangle and wrap it around your finger. (Here is a very good video tutorial on how to do that).
Lay the filled tortellini out on a floured kitchen towel to dry.
In Italy these are often dried completely turning every few hours in the beginning, then and kept in a cool place for several weeks. If you are uneasy about drying meat filling, you can put them in the freezer in a single layer and then store them in freezer bags for a few weeks until ready to use.
These are traditionally served in chicken or capon broth at Christmas and New Year’s but they are also delicious in a butter and cream sauce.
We sometimes make a vegetarian version using fresh (that is, homemade) ricotta, Parmesan cheese, nutmeg, salt and pepper. The proportion is 1 cup well drained ricotta to 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan to 1 egg yolk. Nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste (about ½ teaspoon of each). This is not the traditional filling but it is so good that no one cares!
For a very good chicken broth:
Cover 3 pounds of chicken wings with cold water, add a teaspoon of whole peppercorns and bring to a simmer, skimming the surface as needed. I sometimes add a cup of white wine or a splash of white wine vinegar.
Cook this at the gentlest simmer for 8-24 hours. (I like to use the crock pot with the lid askew to keep it at the barest simmer).
In the last hour or so of cooking, add a cut up carrot, a handful of parsley, a stalk of celery and an onion that you’ve cut in half and browned in a dry cast iron skillet for a few minutes. (This makes it sweeter).
Correct for salt.
Remove the solids from the broth and pour the liquid into a clean pot or bowl through a strainer lined with several layers of cheesecloth.
Chill the broth and then remove most of the fat on the surface.