Tortellini

Say hello to the family of “little cakes” better known as tortelli, tortellini, and tortelloni. Tortelli looks like a stretched out ravioli (a specialty of Parma, Italy). Tortellini is a small ring-shaped pasta that is filled with meat or cheese (usually), and is a specialty of Bologna and Modena in Italy. (As an aside, cappelletti, or “little hats”, and anolini are first cousins to tortellini, the difference being, more or less, the shape.)

Stories abound as to the idea of the shape of tortellini. The one most accepted is that the shape of this pasta was inspired by Venus’s navel. Another story suggests that tortellini was born when a cook molded his pasta directly in the navel of a Bolognese woman. Ah, the myth and magic of stories about food. Other great stories about this tasty pasta can be found in The Food of Italy by Waverley Root.

A Bolognese food writer wrote that “tortellini is a happy marriage between the envelope [the pasta] and its stuffing, a paste of prosciutto, mortadella, veal, and Parmesan cheese.”

That stuffing of meats and cheese, by the way, is a classic, and one that you are not apt to find outside of Bologna.

I have been fortunate enough to have indulged in tortellini in several restaurants in Bologna and have yet to find anything here that even comes close. Don’t take that critical comment too much to heart. The tortellini (and tortelloni) that I ate in Bologna were made by hand. Yes, by little Italian ladies with nimble fingers.

In “The Food of Italy,” Root marveled at the sight of women turning out handmade tortellini “six-thousand of the little rings every hour.” I share a similar experience. One day I was in a restaurant watching women, nimble fingers flying, making tortellini faster than you could imagine. That same afternoon I was in a pasta factory where machines were pumping out tortellini by the thousand every few minutes.

That leads me to the question of whether you should attempt to make your own tortellini or should you buy them ready made. I say you should buy and not make your own. There are hundreds of top-notch pasta companies that make excellent tortellini. The intense labor involved in making your own is not worth it, and then there is the consistency factor to deal with. In many cases you will have a choice of buying either fresh tortellini or frozen tortellini (also, some companies sell a dried, packaged tortellini). Obviously the frozen tortellini has a longer shelf life, so whether you go with frozen or fresh will relate directly to usage. If you can turn the fresh tortellini, say, three times a week, then that might be a good way to go. 

The other consideration for buying your tortellini from a quality maker relates to the stuffing choices. Like favorite toppings on a pizza — pepperoni and sausage — the favorite fillings in tortellini are meat and cheese. Cheese noses out meat in that race, for some reason.

OK, so if you do decide to make your own tortellini, my advice is to buy wonton wrappers. The wrappers come frozen and the size of each square sheet works great (once you get the hang of it) for making and stuffing your signature tortellini.

There is another aspect to tortellini that many operators miss: Using tortellini in a pasta salad. If you are doing, say, a lunch buffet, or offering catering options, tortellini is the ideal pasta for those two situations (in addition to offering it in your regular pasta line up).

Here are a few simple ideas relative to saucing and serving tortellini.

# Tortellini with pesto sauce. This is an arrangement that doubles your pleasure and doubles your fun (as in easy to make and a pleasure to enjoy). Cheese filled tortellini are served either warm or cold (pasta salad) with a pesto sauce. By purchasing the tortellini and the pesto sauce it becomes a simple one, two, three operation.

# Tortellini en brodo. This is tortellini in soup. I like to use a chicken broth that has been flavor enhanced with carrots and celery. Cook the tortellini (the smallest you can find) ahead. Then, simply drop several into a bowl of the broth just before serving.

# Tortellini in Meat Sauce. For this dish I would use a cheese-filled tortellini. Try this meat sauce recipe. The yield will be about 1 1/2 quarts, or enough sauce for 1 1/2 pounds of cooked tortellini.

MEAT SAUCE

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 cup chopped yellow onion

1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/2 pound sweet or mild Italian sausage

3/4 pound ground chuck

2 quarts tomato puree

1 tablespoon dried oregano, crumbled

1 tablespoon dried basil, crumbled

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large pot set over medium heat, warm the olive oil for 1 minute. Add the garlic, onion and parsley. Raise the heat to medium-high. Add the sausage and the ground chuck. Cook and stir until the meat is no longer pink (about 4 minutes). Add the tomatoes, oregano, basil, sugar, salt and pepper. Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. 

Mediterranean Pasta Salad 

Serves 4 to 6

This is a great tortellini recipe for a pasta buffet, deli operation, catering or delivery. The shelf life is 3 to 4 days, covered and kept in the cooler. 

1 pound tortellini, cooked al dente

1 cup cooked (if frozen; rinsed if bottled) artichoke hearts

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 cup Nicoise or oil-cured olives (pitted)

1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 pound dead-ripe Roma or plum tomatoes, chopped coarse

1 cup torn radicchio

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup torn fresh basil leaves

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large serving bowl combine all of the ingredients. Refrigerate for at least one hour before serving.