Witness the Magic of Tortellini Making
Tortellini are considered the gems of Bologna, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that any local restaurant will have this signature stuffed pasta on the menu! In fact, they’re such a symbol of the city that pasta shops across Bologna have window displays piled high with fresh tortellini, and local gift shops are filled with tortellini-shaped souvenirs like keychains and magnets.
Essentially stuffed pasta dumplings, tortellini are traditionally filled with local cheeses and meats, like Parmesan, ricotta cheese, prosciutto, and mortadella. They’re also a staple on family tables during the Christmas season in the form of tortellini en brodo, a simple yet oh-so-satisfying soup of tortellini in a light broth. It wouldn’t be a true Christmas feast in Bologna without this classic dish.
Local lore has it that the shape of tortellini was inspired by, of all things, the navel. One story goes that an innkeeper in the town of Castelfranco nell’Emilia—about halfway between Bologna and Modena—peeked through a keyhole in a woman’s room and was inspired by the beauty of her belly button to create a navel-shaped pasta. If you care to get more mythological, another widely told version says that after a battle between Bologna and Modena, Roman gods spent the night at this local inn. The innkeeper was so struck by Venus’s beauty that he went off to the kitchen to invent a pasta sculpted in the shape of her navel.
While pasta shops in Bologna sell fresh tortellini ready-made, don't miss the opportunity to watch the sfogline, women who are pasta-folding masters as they practice their art of making tortellini by hand. In the Emilia-Romagna region, the thinly rolled pasta sheets that are turned into tortellini (or other pastas like tagliatelle and agnoletti) are called sfoglia. A sfoglina, therefore, is a woman who works with the sfoglia; traditionally the matriarch of a family who would spend her day folding to make enough tortellini to feed her family that evening. It’s said they need to roll the pasta so thin that if you hold it up to the sun, you can see the sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, a small church atop a hill outside of the heart of Bologna, through it!
On a recent trip to Bologna, we visited with a sfoglina making fresh pasta in a small studio. The way these matriarchs methodically make tortellini by hand is like a meditative art form. Watch for yourself: