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Ask an expert: What’s the difference between Italian tortellini and tortelloni?

Ever been to an Italian restaurant and felt confused when you saw tortellini and tortelloni on the menu? Is it a spelling mistake? Although they sound and look very similar, these two pasta dishes are in fact very different.

Italian tortellini.
What's in a vowel? When it comes to Italian pasta, it makes all the difference. Photo: Stefano Segato on Unsplash

Italy’s variety of pasta is mind-boggling. Just when you think you’re starting to get a handle on the different shapes and textures – and what sauces they go with – you go to another region and discover a whole new offering of dishes.

Since living in Italy, I’ve developed a greedy fondness for the tastes of different areas and can understand why each place would be proud of their signature dish.

From scarfing down a plate of trofie al pesto in Liguria to feasting on pici all’aglione in Tuscany, eating as the locals do is a good bet you’ll leave saying it’s the best dinner you’ve ever had.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

Although I’m sure most regions would boast their dishes are the best in the country, my adopted home city of Bologna doesn’t have the moniker of ‘la grassa’ (the fat one) for nothing.

And Italian food writer Roberto Serra agrees: “Trying to be as objective as I can be as a Bolognese, I believe we have the largest variety of fresh pasta, by far.”

Rich, heavy pasta dishes to keep you warm through the developing autumn season are what the city is famous for.

And knowing your tortelloni from your tortellini is not only interesting pub trivia, they are completely different in taste, mainly owing to their meat or non-meat fillings.

“They actually share only the shape and part of the name, but fillings are different as is how they are cooked or served,” Serra told us.

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

Filling the tortellini.
Filling the tortellini. Photo: World Pinners/Flickr

Tortellini

Let’s start with one of Bologna’s famous dishes. You’ll see restaurants preparing tortellini by hand if you walk down the little side streets, while excited conversations about how best to cook the ‘brodo‘ (a kind of jus or broth the pasta is served in) ripple through the porticoes.

Away from the city centre and into the countryside, grandmas sit curling the pasta around their finger for hours, preparing the small pasta parcels for Sunday lunch.

“Real Bolognese tortellini must be cooked and served in broth,” Serra said. The broth should be made out of gallina stock (hen) or even better if you can create it from cappone (castrated male chicken).

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“The only possible variation to this is if it’s cooked in broth and sautéed in cream. No other options are available and stay away from people having tortellini with bolognese ragù – or even worse ideas,” he added.

The tortellini filling ‘ripieno‘ is formally protected by the ‘camera di commercio’ – an organisation that ensures fair and transparent business.

“It’s made of a few, high quality ingredients, including lombo di maiale (pork loin), mortadella (a type of strong meat from pork), prosciutto crudo (raw ham), parmigiano reggiano, eggs and nutmeg,” said Serra.

Tortelloni

The vowel change means you’re in for a different dish – although not completely.

Tortelloni are still filled pasta and the shape is the same – but the crucial difference is what’s inside.

“The traditional filling for tortelloni in Bologna is ricotta cheese and parsley,” Serra said.

But there can be variations from this when you move away from Bologna. “You can find other fillings – moving towards Ferrara for example, you will find them filled with pumpkin,” he added.

READ ALSO: The words and phrases you need to decipher Italian restaurant menus

A dish of tagliatelle.
Tagliatelle – another Bologna staple. Photo by Marika Sartori on Unsplash

Can you find these dishes everywhere?

“There’s a huge fight between Bologna and Modena about who invented tortellini. The final deal seems to be Castelfranco Emilia (the largest town between Modena and Bologna) as their hometown!” Serra said.

Although you may find them on the menu all over, the closer a dish is to its home, the better it generally is.

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Bologna lays claim to several iconic Italian dishes. Aside from tortellini, Serra says tagliatelle al ragù and lasagne bolognesi are the city’s most authentic dishes.

Making them at home

If you can’t make it to Bologna, how can you recreate those moreish, hearty tastes yourself?

“Fresh pasta is a tradition in my family. I cannot think of one single Sunday with my parents not making it,” Serra said. “There were no Sundays without tagliatelle, tortellini or lasagne,” he added.

“Tortellini are for sure the most difficult – shaping, we say ‘closing’ them, is not easy. It has to be done on the little finger and it takes time if you’re not super skilled,” he confirmed.

“It is usually a task that takes a whole afternoon, with the whole family on it. A perfect way to gather everyone,” he said.

Ask an expert: How do I sauce pasta the Italian way?

He confesses he hasn’t yet written his own recipe for tortellini as he doesn’t want to compete with his mum, but if you’d like to try his bolognese sauce (Italians simply call it ragù), see here. For his lasagne recipe (green, with spinach in the dough), click here.

If you do manage a trip to Bologna for some authentic tasting, Serra has unearthed this gem of a restaurant where the nonna still makes the pasta with her hands.

So what about spaghetti bolognese?

This isn’t a renowned dish of Bologna because it doesn’t exist – in the way that we know it, at least.

“You know that spaghetti alla bolognese actually does exist, but it’s a tuna-based dish!” Serra revealed.

“Unfortunately, my town is usually connected to a sauce for spaghetti abroad, while our ragù is actually amazing on almost any kind of pasta – apart from spaghetti.

“The problem is that bolognese ragù is not rich in tomato sauce, so it does not stick if the pasta is smooth. That’s why it is perfect for tagliatelle, great with gramigna or most shapes of maccheroni,” he added.

READ ALSO: Why you won’t find spaghetti bolognese in Italy

He pointed out that spaghetti bolognese is the easiest proxy to tagliatelle bolognese, since outside of Italy it never became common to make fresh pasta at home – and exporting it from Italy was not easy as it contains eggs.

So it’s been replaced with something similar – in broad terms.

“It’s such a pity they did not think about rigatoni as the best substitute for tagliatelle. I know they look very different, but they would have been so much better,” said Serra.

What other dishes is Bologna famous for?

“We have the tradition from the appennines mountain range, including tigelle, crescentine and gnocco fritto,” said Serra. These are all bread-based foods, the latter two are fried and all are eaten with cold cuts, cheese and sometimes honey. See his tigelle recipe here.

“We are also in the parmigiano reggiano territory, while desserts are good such as torta di riso (rice cake) and zuppa inglese (a type of English trifle).

Read more about authentic Italian cuisne on Roberto’s blog, Eatalian with Roberto.

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FOOD & DRINK

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.

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