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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

RANKED: The 11 worst food crimes you can commit according to Italians

From fruity pizza toppings to spaghetti bolognese, an international study has revealed which of the most common 'crimes' against Italian cuisine are seen as most and least offensive.

Pasta with sauce on top and vegetables on the side.
The Italian food police are on their way. Photo: logan jeffrey on Unsplash

It turns out that putting cream in carbonara is not actually the worst thing you could do when holding a dinner party for Italian friends.

And, while not ideal, neither is snapping your spaghetti before cooking it, or even serving it as a side dish.

The many unwritten rules around eating and drinking in Italy are often baffling to foreigners, while Italians themselves are famous for raging against what they see as “disgusting” interpretations of classic dishes.

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

But in Italy, some of these food-related faux pas are viewed as far more upsetting than others, according to the results of a international study published by YouGov.

At the end of last year, researchers compiled a list of 19 ways in which foreigners are often accused of abusing Italian cuisine and asked people in 17 countries, including Italy, whether each was acceptable or unacceptable.

Of these, eight culinary practices were judged as being either fairly acceptable or divisive by Italian survey respondents.

Eating pizza at lunchtime instead of in the evening was deemed wrong by only a minority of Italians; while many also reserved judgement on people combining Bolognese sauce or ragù with spaghetti – which is famously not the done thing in Bologna.

Putting sauce on top of pasta, as opposed to serving the pasta coated in the sauce, meanwhile, was seen as mildly controversial.

However, the majority deemed 11 of the listed transgressions to be completely out of order, issuing a clear warning against certain habits which are widespread outside the country – and which, for the most part, were not seen as problematic by the majority of respondents in other countries surveyed.

Here’s the list of the very worst crimes against Italian food according to the study – ranked from the offences seen as deeply disturbing to those deemed slightly less terrible.

1. Putting ketchup on pasta – this was by far the most distressing item on the list according to Italians, scoring -82. It was one of only two food crimes on the list that Americans also deemed unacceptable (-48), with Spaniards similarly against (-46). However, in 11 countries people said this was perfectly fine, with Indonesians (+76) and Hong Kongers (+79) the most enthusiastic. People in Sweden also seem to enjoy pasta with ketchup, the survey found (+46).

2. Putting pasta in cold water and then boiling it – the results are clear with a score of -71: don’t do this in front of an Italian unless you want them to run screaming from the kitchen. Of course, you’re supposed to add the pasta to water that’s already gently boiling. Adding pasta to cold water was the most disdained practice around the world overall, including by Americans, with only Chinese (+16) and Hong Konger (+31) respondents more likely to be ok with it. 

3. Putting pineapple on pizza – there’s a reason you won’t see a Hawaiian listed on the menu in many pizzerias in Italy – it’s seen as the third-worst thing you could do to the national cuisine with a score of -63 .France isn’t keen either (-15) though Australia appears to have plenty of fans of fruity pizza toppings (+50).

4. Serving pasta as a side dish – think a mound of spaghetti would be a nice accompaniment to your grilled meat or fish? Think again if you’re in Italy, where the idea of having pasta as a contorno ranked as one of the worst possible food crimes with a score of -63. As all Italians know, pasta is served before the meat, fish or other main course, as a primo. No other country surveyed had a problem with this, though, and the French were especially big fans of pasta as a plat d’accompagnement.

5. Cutting long pasta with a knife while eating – the message is clear: don’t snap it, don’t cut it; you’ll need to learn how to twirl your spaghetti elegantly around your fork if you want to be invited back to an Italian home for dinner. This habit is another one people in the country apparently find disturbing, with a score of -46.

6. Putting cream in carbonara sauce – perhaps surprisingly, this famous crime against Italian cuisine – which regularly provokes furious online outbursts and stern warnings from Italian chefs – came in at only 6th place with a score of -45. As any Italian will tell you, there’s no need for cream in the authentic recipe.

7. Topping seafood pasta with cheese – this rule may not seem obvious to non-Italians, but we don’t recommend asking for the grated parmesan after being served a steaming plate of spaghetti alle vongole. It’s a major faux pas in Italy, where it scored -39, while Americans gave a far more positive rating of +38.

8. Rinsing cooked pasta in cold water – while many people abroad may think they need to rinse boiled pasta, Italians wouldn’t do this. Instead, many recipes call for the starchy pasta water to be conserved and used to finish the sauce. While perhaps seen as more senseless than revolting, this practice scored -23 in Italy.

9. Drinking cappuccino after lunch – Long, milky coffees are for breakfast in Italy, and while the barista probably won’t refuse to make you a cappuccino at 3pm, be aware that this might cause confusion and could turn other customers’ stomachs, as Italians gave this habit a score of -23. That’s despite the rest of Europe being fine with the concept; it scored +65 in Spain, +62 in Germany and +53 in France.

10. Boiling pasta without salt – Italians will tell you that a pinch of salt is essential in the cooking water for pasta, and leaving it out is highly controversial, with a score -17. Meanwhile, the British don’t see a problem (+15).

11. Eating garlic bread with pasta – While the rest of the world may ask what could possibly be wrong with this, the concept of filling a baguette with garlic butter and baking it just doesn’t really exist in Italy – even if it does seem to exist in every Italian restaurant on the planet outside of the country itself. Americans are particularly enthusiastic about this combination (+83), as are Brits (+80) but Italians gave it the thumbs down with -14.

The results also showed that attitudes to some of the established food rules are shifting among young Italians.

The biggest difference comes with drinking cappuccino after a meal, something which 18-24 year-old Italians tend to think is fine (+24), but which older age groups – and especially the over 55s (-36) – say is unacceptable. 

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

Young Italians are also substantially more likely than their older peers to say that eating garlic bread with pasta or having risotto as a side dish is ok.

However, younger Italians seem to have turned against the practice of adding oil to the water when cooking pasta. Those aged 18-24 and 25-34 tend to consider this unacceptable, whereas their elders tend to see it as fine, the survey found.

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