According to an Emilian Forklore, tortellini was inspired by the Greek goddess, Venus. The legend states that after enjoying a good night of eating, Venus retired to her room and the innkeeper, overcome with curiosity, spied on the naked goddess through the keyhole. Overwhelmed by her beauty, he rushed to the kitchen and created tortellini in the shape of her navel.
This is just one of the stories regarding the history of stuffed pasta. A more accurate and less romantic account comes from Waverly Root, a food historian. Based on Root’s research, ravioli was invented at the beginning of the 19th century as a way to use up leftovers. Other historians disagree and claim ravioli has existed as early as the 14th century. The one thing historians do agree on is that both fresh and stuffed pastas were considered an aristocratic food until the 1900s. Nowadays stuffed pasta is not only available as an everyday meal, but the variations and fillings range from traditional to novelty creations.
Early Italian stuffed pastas consisted of fillings that were either sweet (cheese, honey, nuts, and cinnamon) or savoury (meats, pepper and saffron), depending on where you lived in the country.
The people of Northern Italy were the first to diversify their stuffed pastas with the creation of tortellini. Originating in Emilia-Romagna, tortellini was traditionally stuffed with ground meats and prosciutto. The chefs served the pasta with cream sauces or a simple sauce of butter and sage, while light tomato sauces were reserved for the summer months.
When it comes to the Italian island of Sardinia, stuffed pastas take on a different flavour. The island’s version of ravioli is called culurgiones, but instead of square, the pasta is oval and stuffed with spinach and percorino cheese. Culurgiones are topped with a tomato sauce, a lamb meat sauce or butter and sage leaves. A variation of this regional favorite is Culurgiones de l’Ogliastra. This version originates from the central eastern part of the Nuoro province and is influenced by Germanic tastes. The pasta is stuffed with potato puree (and sometimes meat and onions) along with a little percorino, olive oil, garlic and mint. Again a tomato sauce is the usual accompaniment.
As we enter into the region of Sicily, the food is hotter, spicier and sweeter than the rest of Italy. With strong Arabic influences, their stuffed pastas incorporate eggplant, olives, pine nuts, anchovies and capers. It is here that you will find panzerotti. Sometimes known as Apulian ravioli, panzerotti is filled with anchovies, capers and strong ricotta cheese made from ewe’s milk.
While the shapes of stuffed pasta may look similar, each region adds its own unique flavour: in Piemonte, they are famed for truffles and use truffle oil or sprinkle slivers of the fungus over their pasta, Coastal Liguria is noted for its seafood, profusion of herbs and olive oil, and Fruili-Venezia Giulia incorporates a Middle-Eastern flair, using spices such as cumin and paprika to flavor meat, adding a savoury twist to their pasta fillings. There are many other variations, and throughout Italy you’ll find fillings as diverse as the regions themselves.
It’s What’s Inside That Matters
When it comes to stuffed pastas, the only limitation is the chef’s imagination. Restaurants at all levels —from casual fare to white tablecloth—are focusing on creating regional dishes using authentic flavours. Some are duplicating recipes from specific Italian regions, while others are modifying the recipes based on their customers’ tastes.
Regardless of whether your creation is traditional or modern fare, the pasta can be stuffed with any finely chopped meats, cheese, seafood, herbs, spinach greens, poultry or vegetables such as squash. After stuffing, the pastas are cooked and then served with a light sauce, but this too, is only the beginning. They can also be served in a broth, added to a baked dish, or thrown into a salad.
Pre-stuffed pasta is predominately sold fresh, but frozen and dried varieties are available. By Italian law all dried pasta must be made with 100% durum semolina flour. While this law is not always adhered to outside Italy, the practice is carried out by all quality pasta makers worldwide.
Fresh pasta has its own rules and can be made with slightly different ingredients than the dried varieties. Northern regions of Italy use all-purpose flour and eggs while southern Italy prepares theirs with semolina and water. If not making your own pasta, look for a brand that uses the best ingredients. The pasta should have a rough surface, as smooth pasta will not hold onto sauce. Also look for pasta that feels heavy in the package and has nice colour and texture. If it looks fresh, it will taste fresh.
Types of Stuffed Pasta
Agnolotti: A circle of pasta that is folded over and sealed to form a half circle.
Cappelletti: A two inch square of pasta that is folded into triangles and then twisted to form the shape of a little hat.
Caramelle: Named after a candy, it resembles a candy wrapper twisted at both ends.
Mezzaluna: Small half moon shaped pasta.
Pansotti: A two inch square of pasta that is folded over to create a triangle.
Ravioli: Two squares of pasta that are stuffed and then sealed to resemble a pillow.
Tortellini: A circle of pasta that is folded in half to form a half circle and then twisted to form the shape of a little hat.
By Michelle Ponto