The Salt
12:00 am
Tue August 27, 2013

Tortellini, The Dumpling Inspired By Venus' Navel

Originally published on Sat August 31, 2013 1:38 pm

Tortellini — small circles of rolled dough folded around a filling — are one of the most renowned members of the Italian pasta family. In the land of their birth, the region near the Italian city of Bologna, they're strictly served as broth-like dumplings.

Possibly no foodstuff in Italian cuisine is surrounded by so much history and lore.

Legend has it that Venus, the goddess of love, once stayed at the local tavern in the town of Castelfranco Emilia, halfway between the gastronomic giants Bologna and Modena.

The innkeeper spied on his guest through the keyhole of her room and got a partial glimpse of her. Struck by what he saw, he rushed to his kitchen, rolled out a sheet of fresh egg pasta and invented a shape inspired by Venus' navel.

Every year, Castelfranco Emilia celebrates its favorite son — the nameless inventor of the most sensual of all pasta shapes. Drummers, flag-throwers and local residents parade through town dressed in elaborate Renaissance costumes. On a makeshift stage, the legend of the peeping-Tom innkeeper is more or less re-enacted. The mood is festive and suitable for children.

"Inspired by the sight of the divine navel," the master of ceremonies intones, "our innkeeper invents the prestigious ... tortellino!"

While its origins may not be in antiquity, the first known tortellino recipe dates to 1570.

Gianni degli Angeli is the president of the San Nicola Association, which has taken on the task of safeguarding the local region's renowned culinary traditions.

He says the No. 1 symbol of the local gastronomic culture is the tortellino. "In times of poverty and hardship, we ate tortellini only at Christmas, Easter and at weddings, because the filling is made of costly ingredients like prosciutto and parmesan cheese," he says.

Tortellini are an integral part of family life in the Emilia region, says Massimo Bottura, chef and owner of a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena. "I grew up under the kitchen table escaping my older brothers at my grandmother's, where flour fell on my feet."

At an international gathering of famous chefs, he said that tortellini bring out a competitive spirit. "Every family has its own recipe for tortellini, more Parmigiano, less Parmigiano," he says. "I don't put prosciutto. I want mortadella. There are more discussions about tortellini in our family, in every Emilian family, than about politics."

Politics and soccer are way outranked in Emilia by the desire to eat well — very well.

Making tortellini is an elaborate operation and has long been the domain of women known as sfogline. The word derives from sfoglia, the sheet of fresh egg pasta that is painstakingly rolled out by hand.

Grazia Battistini is 63 years old, and she's been a sfoglina for some 50 years.

"Grandmothers and mothers handed down the tradition to daughters and granddaughters. We started when we were 7 or 8 years old," she says. "If we couldn't reach the tabletop, they gave us a stool to stand on. Little by little, we learned to roll and then to cut the pasta. We had to be careful not to cut our fingers."

For most of her life, Battistini says, making fresh egg pasta was an activity that involved the entire family. "It was an occasion for socialization," she says. "We were all together, men, women, children, everyone working together collectively."

Battistini gives us a demonstration on a wooden tabletop.

"For every 4 ounces of flour, we use one egg," she says. "We make a crater in the center of the flour, and we break the eggs in the center and whisk briskly with a fork."

Battistini then starts mixing and scraping, and kneading the dough mostly with the palm of her hands — for at least 10 minutes. Once it's smooth and in the shape of a ball, she sets it aside to rest and starts on the filling, a mixture of prosciutto, mortadella, pork loin, eggs, Parmesan cheese and nutmeg.

Battistini then returns to the sfoglia. Her entire body sways, rhythmically and sensually, as she stretches the dough over and over again with a rolling pin until it forms a large paper-thin sheet, not more than 1 millimeter thick.

When the sheet is ready, Battistini starts cutting it in strips and then into little squares 3 centimeters per side. She puts a dab of filling in the center, folds the square into a triangle, presses it, then rolls it around her index finger — out comes the belly-button shaped dumpling.

Like most Italians, Battistini has little patience for culinary experimentation and observes a rigid dogma in the kitchen.

"The tortellino can only be served in broth, that's what tradition teaches us. Of course, some people today serve it with butter, cream or tomato sauce, but then they're killing the taste of the filling."

Once upon a time, a young man seeking a wife wanted first and foremost a master sfoglina. But starting in the 1960s, women started working outside the home, and many no longer know how to make fresh egg pasta.

The art of making tortellino is endangered.

Now, a group of young graphic designers from Modena has produced an app to safeguard the art of making tortellino, its history and the role in plays in the local culture.

Lucia Barbieri says it's aimed at teaching everyone how to make tortellini.

"For example, men are showing a keen interest in making tortellino," Barbieri says. "When I get together with a group of friends to make pasta, the men are always most enthusiastic as they learn an art that always belonged to women alone."

Meanwhile in Bologna, a new business opened last fall in the center of town — it's a tortellino-to-go joint, appropriately called Tortellino Bologna.

Open every day until midnight, it caters to students, office workers and even housewives. Customers can order online.

It's the brainchild of Federico Spisani, who left his job in a bank to embark on an effort to safeguard his grandmother's culinary traditions with a contemporary twist. He has enlisted an army of sfogline — several of whom are in their 80s — to prepare fresh pasta every day. Servings come in Styrofoam cups.

"I try to unite the Italian quality of food — the best, in my opinion, in the world, — in a very fast-food way, cheap and fast," Spisani says.

As we leave, two well-dressed, middle-aged women enter the shop circumspectly and, probably hoping nobody will recognize them, they order two servings of takeaway tortellino.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

I'm Renee Montagne. And all this week, we here at MORNING EDITION are celebrating the dumpling, visiting countries across the globe and showcasing all shapes and sizes of these tasty dough packages.

Today, we go to a dumpling mecca, Italy, and talk tortellini. The small circles of rolled dough folded around a filling were born in Italy's Emilia region, where they're strictly served as dumplings in broth. Possibly no Italian foodstuff is surrounded by so much history and legend.

And as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, tortellini has long been a pillar of local family traditions.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The town of Castelfranco Emilia lies halfway between the gastronomic giants Bologna and Modena. Legend has it that Venus, the goddess of love, once stayed at a local tavern. Spying on his guest through the keyhole, the innkeeper got a partial glimpse. Struck by what he saw, he rushed to his kitchen, rolled out a sheet of fresh egg pasta, and invented a shape inspired by Venus's navel.

Every year, Castelfranco Emilia celebrates its favorite son, the nameless inventor of the most sensual of all pasta shapes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

POGGIOLI: Drummers, flag-throwers and local residents parade through town dressed in elaborate Renaissance costumes. On a makeshift stage, the legend of the peeping-tom innkeeper and the goddess is reenacted.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE PLAY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Italian spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Tortellino.

POGGIOLI: Inspired by the sight of the divine navel, the Master of Ceremonies intones: Our innkeeper invents the prestigious tortellino.

While its origins may not be in antiquity, the first known tortellino recipe dates to 1570. Since then, it's the number-one symbol of Emilia's gastronomic culture, and an integral part of local family life.

MASSIMO BOTTURA: I grew up under the kitchen table that's keeping my older brothers at my grandmother's, where flour fell on my feet.

POGGIOLI: Massimo Bottura runs a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena. He told an international gathering of famous chefs that tortellini bring out a competitive spirit.

BOTTURA: Every family has its own recipe for tortellini: more parmigiano, less parmigiano. I don't put prosciutto. I want mortadella. There are more discussion about tortellini in our family and in every Emilian family, than about politica.

POGGIOLI: Politics and soccer are way outranked in Emilia by the desire to eat well, very well.

Making tortellini is hard work, long the domain of women known as sfogline. The word derives from sfoglia, the sheet of fresh egg pasta that's painstakingly rolled out by hand.

Grazia Battistini is 63 years old, and she's been a sfoglina for some 50 years.

GRAZIA BATTISTINI: (Through translator) Grandmothers and mothers handed down the tradition to daughters and granddaughters. We started when we were seven or eight years old. If we couldn't reach the tabletop, they gave us a stool to stand on. Little by little, we learned to roll and cut the pasta.

POGGIOLI: The process, Battistini says, involve the entire family.

BATTISTINI: (Through translator) It was a time for socialization. We were all together - men, women, children - preparing the pasta, the filling and the broth, all working collectively.

POGGIOLI: Battistini gives a solo demonstration. She mixes eggs and flour, then kneads the dough with the palm of her hands. Once shaped like a ball, she sets it aside and starts on the filling, a mix of prosciutto, mortadella, pork loin, eggs, parmesan cheese and nutmeg. Battistini then returns to the dough.

BATTISTINI: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: Her body sways rhythmically as she stretches the dough over and over again with a rolling pin, until it forms a large, paper-thin sheet.

BATTISTINI: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: Battistini then cuts the sheet into tiny squares and puts a dab of filling in the center, folds the square into a triangle, presses it, then rolls it around her index finger, and out comes the belly-button-shaped dumpling. Like most Italians, Battistini has little patience for culinary experimentation.

BATTISTINI: (Through translator) The tortellino can only be served in broth. That's what tradition teaches us. Of course, some people today serve it with butter, cream or tomato sauce, but they're killing the taste of the filling.

POGGIOLI: In the 1960s, Italian women began working outside the home. Many no longer know how to make fresh pasta. Now, a group of young local graphic designers have produced an app to safeguard the tortellino's role in the local culture.

Lucia Barbieri says it's aimed at teaching everyone - including men - how to make tortellini.

LUCIA BARBIERI: (Through Translator) When I get together with a group of friends to make pasta, it's the men who are most enthusiastic as they learn this art which has always belonged to women.

POGGIOLI: A new business has opened in the center of the Bologna - it's a tortellino-to-go joint. It caters to students, office workers - and even, housewives - who can order online. It's the brainchild of Federico Spisani, who left his bank job and enlisted an army of sfogline - several of whom are in the '80s - to prepare fresh pasta every day. Servings come in Styrofoam cups.

FEDERICO SPISANI, TORTELLINO BOLOGNA: I try to unite the Italian quality of food, the best in my opinion in the world, in a very fast food way - cheap and fast, you know.

POGGIOLI: As we leave, two well-dressed middle-aged women enter the shop circumspectly and, probably hoping nobody will recognize them, they order two servings of takeaway tortellino.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And we'd loved to see the dumplings you love to make. Send photos to MORNING EDITION @npr.org, or shared them on Twitter and Instagram, with the hashtag #nprdumplingweek. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.