Stuffed Pasta, The Ultimate Italian Comfort Food
The birth of ravioli appropriately enough is wrapped in legend.
Though “riavvolgere” means “to wrap,” most believe the dish was actually named after Ravioli, a renowned 13th-century chef in the Repubblica di Genova (now more or less the Italian region of Liguria) who is credited with its invention. But, as is often the case with the most enduring and beloved culinary creations, there are countless stories and conflicting tales about its origin. After all, who wouldn’t want to take credit for this ingenious gastronomical gift? Though forms of this dish are known to date back to early Roman times, it wasn’t until the 12th century that the first manuscripts can be found describing raviolus—square or round shaped pasta probably filled with ricotta and other ingredients. Ravioli, however, is just one of many types of filled pasta—or tortelli, as they were called in Italian—all of which are the noble descendents of the torta, a medieval savory pie.
Torte (plural form), tortelli and ravioli can all be traced back to the Middle Ages in Italy. Contrary to popular belief, the so-called Dark Ages were a period of innovation in culinary methods and the real beginning of more elaborate preparations for the table. The earliest versions of torte were not so different than those we are familiar with today: vegetables cooked with herbs and spices, and often combined with ricotta or other cheese, wrapped in dough. Eclectic and appreciated by all social classes, torte quickly grew in popularity; they were delicious, nutritious, and could last quite a long time—easily carried into the fields by farmers and soldiers. The creative chefs of the wealthy and noble families of the time expanded on the torte idea; in order not to waste any of the abundant leftovers from the huge banquets and court meals, new forms of filled pasta began to develop. From torte, there came tortelli, tortellini, and tortelloni (demonstrating the endearing Italian linguistic device for expressing variations in size), ravioli and cappelletti. By the 14th century, all kinds of pasta ripiena (filled pasta) began to appear throughout many parts of northern and central Italy. Recipes spread from palaces to noble courts, eventually embraced by almost every social class in all the major regions of Italy—from Bologna, Parma and Ferrara and later to Piemonte and Lombardy. As these recipes traveled, the names would change and often many of the ingredients, as well.
Basically, these delicious creations consisted of rolled-out layers of very thin dough made with wheat flour, water and sometimes eggs. (Though, in the central southern regions of Italy, eggs were rarely used.) The dough was then cut into small squares—or round or triangular shapes. Each piece was dabbed with a tiny bit of ripieno (filling): vegetables, meat, fish, cheese, and salumi (cured pork meat) were used in various combinations, and not necessarily just from leftovers. Fresh game meat—such as roasted or grilled deer, wild boar, and rabbit—were often used for the filling, or else fresh fish from the rivers, lakes, and seas. Some spices like nutmeg, saffron, poppy seeds and pepper became more widely used in later centuries. Until the 16th century, pasta of all kinds was customarily eaten with a sweet condiment such as marmalade, currants, or almonds; these same ingredients could be used in filled-pasta preparations—often with the addition of ricotta or pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese). The paste ripiene were often cooked in water or broth and served with spices, such as cinnamon or ginger; or they were fried and sweetened with sugar or honey.
Remarkably little has changed in the way paste repiene is made today—except perhaps that meat grinders and food processors have replaced mortars to mince and blend the ingredients for the fillings. As in earlier times, there is still a huge variety of regional variations. Sometimes the same pasta, with the same filling is called by a completely different name in towns just 20 miles apart. In other cases, the same name—for example, ravioli—means something very different depending on which region you’re in. Of course, there are also each cook’s personal touches—varying and embellishing the traditional recipes, adjusting the proportions used, or changing or substituting ingredients according to what is available. Nonetheless, the traditional recipes remain intact. Below is a list of the most important and popular paste ripiene dishes in Italy today—going from region to region, traveling from the northwest top of the boot and heading south—to give you ideas for your own filled-pasta creations:
The specialty of this region is agnolotti—which are usually in the form of squares; a common variation is agnolotti gobbi (“gobbi” means “hunchbacked”) from the town of Asti, which are filled so abundantly they become curved. Usually, agnolotti are filled with a mixture of different cooked meats—leftover stracotto (slowly cooked braised beef), roasted rabbit, chicken breast, or sausages—combined with vegetables such as spinach, chard or curly endives. Parmigiano, nutmeg, salt and pepper are added to the filling. For sauce, the juices from the roasted meats are often used; alternatively, ragù alla Piemontese (a local version of meat sauce) is served. Another sauce commonly used all over Italy for paste ripiene is called burro fuso e salvia (melted butter and sage), which is simply made by warming butter until it foams slightly and the color changes to a light brown, then adding sage toward the end. The browned butter lends a wonderful nutty taste to this dish, which is always topped with parmigiano. Agnolotti can also be served simply in beef broth.
This is the region of ravioli and pansotti (which means “little bellies”)—both pastas often are made with similar fillings. The raviolo (singular form) is a common type of pasta all over Italy—though its ingredients vary, its shape is always the same: squared or slightly rectangular. In Liguria, the classic filling is made with roasted sausages, beef and pork meat; eggs; parmigiano; a generous amount of borage (a leafy green commonly found in Liguria) and marjoram. These ravioli are traditionally served in a bowl with a mixture of beef broth and Gavi wine—the same wine that you’ll probably be drinking in your glass! Ravioli di Gavi can also be seasoned with a reduced gravy from roasted meat, topped with grated parmigiano. An alternative filling can be made with grilled fish leftovers, such as sea bass (branzino), baby shrimp (gamberetti), and other seafood—all finely chopped, seasoned and sautéed, and served with a delicate fresh tomato sauce.
From the northern valleys bordering Switzerland comes an elaborate filled pasta called casoncelli—though the name has numerous dialectal variations. Typical fillings include salame, roasted meat, pears, currants, grana cheese, breadcrumbs, crumbled amaretti biscotti (almond cookies), garlic and parsley; as you might imagine, there are countless variations. Appropriately enough, casoncelli are shaped like little wrapped bonbons; they are served with butter and sage. Another famous dish from this region is the Tortelli di zucca mantovani, filled with pumpkin, crumbled amaretti biscotti, and mostarda—that is, a fruit mustard which is very common in Lombardy, particularly in the towns of Mantova and Cremona. The rectangular 2 ½-inch tortelli (which in other parts of Italy would be called ravioli) are boiled and served with burro fuso e salvia.
This region, which includes Bologna, is known to be the capital of filled pasta. Classic tortellini—also called cappelletti or tortelli—can be found in all the provinces of Emilia-Romagna. Tortellini are made in the shape of tiny knots; one legend has it that Venus’ navel was the inspiration! Contrary to agnolotti, the filling of tortellini is made with a blend of uncooked meats—mortadella, prosciutto (Parma ham), and/or air-cured pork loin—with parmigiano, nutmeg, and pepper. The traditional way to serve tortellini is in beef or capon broth, or with the internationally renowned Bolognese meat sauce called Ragù alla Bolognese. An easy but delicious alternative is simply fresh cream and parmigiano. Another regional variation is anolini, which are half-moon shaped pasta with a filling similar to the Piemonte’s agnolotti, or else a braised pork–based filling. But the vegetarian version—the classic ricotta and spinach filling—is extremely popular, locally as well as worldwide. This filling, called ricotta e spinaci, is also commonly used with tortelloni (the bigger version of tortellini) or ravioli. Cappellacci (literally translated as “ugly hats”) are typically filled with pumpkin, or with pumpkin and potatoes. Other fillings are always being invented, such as ricotta and radicchio (found in the Veneto region); ricotta and asparagus; and fava beans, artichokes and asparagus. This last recipe is delicious with a sauce of sun-dried tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil; but most of the time, these vegetarian paste repiene are seasoned just with butter and parmigiano—with or without sage.
A very old recipe for filled pasta is called Tortelli alla lastra (“on sandstone”); it originated in the mountains between Tuscany and Emilia and was originally cooked on a sheet of sandstone over a fire. The dough is made of flour and water, and rolled out into thin large squares; the filling consists mainly of mashed potatoes, sometimes with the addition of pancetta. These tortelli are usually served with a sauce made of braised onions, carrots, celery, tomatoes, sage and garlic.
Considered the homeland of the best chefs of Italian cuisine, this gorgeous region, west of Rome, is the birthplace of a unique filled pasta called Tortelli abruzzesi di Carnevale. This dish is usually served on the last Sunday of Carnival, and on other occasions as well. The filling of the tortelli, which can be made in a variety of shapes, consists simply of sheep ricotta, eggs and cinnamon. These tortelli are cooked in a meat broth—a tradition for centuries—and served with grated pecorino.
This small, gorgeous region has its own traditional and beloved filled-pasta dish: ravioli scapolesi—the name comes from a little village called Scapoli. The filling is made of boiled and chopped chard (bietola); roasted ground meat; sausage; beaten eggs; ricotta and young pecorino cheese. For this recipe, egg dough is used. The large raviolis are first boiled, then seasoned in a pork and sausage ragù, and finally baked.
The most popular filled pastas from the spectacular island of Sardinia are known as culurjonis in the local dialect; in Italian, they’re called culurgioni. The dough is made of fresh durum wheat and water, and molded (after it’s filled) to resemble the tip of a wheat stalk. The filling is made with fresh goat or sheep ricotta, eggs and saffron. Sometimes young local pecorino cheese, chard or spinach are added. Culurgioni are boiled in water and served with a fresh tomato and basil sauce; grated aged pecorino is always sprinkled on top. In the southeast and the interior of the island, there are numerous variations for the filling—such as very fresh pecorino cheese (just one or two days old), boiled mashed potatoes and mint. Sometimes oregano or onions are substituted for the mint.
Today, the specialties of one region are not limited to their place of origin; all kinds of paste ripiene are available all over Italy—and truly beloved. Most Italian families, however, reserve homemade paste ripiene for special occasions because of the work involved—to prepare enough filled pasta for an entire family and guests requires many hours and many hands. But, fresh-filled pasta (also called pasta fresca) is sold all over Italy in special shops called pastifici. The tortellini, agnolotti, and ravioli available in these shops are usually superb. And, in all honesty, the commercial fresh pasta available in grocery stores and supermarkets is usually of very good quality as well. But nothing compares to handmade paste ripiene—which is truly unforgettable.a