Pasta ripiena (stuffed pasta), once an aristocratic dish, is still made by hand all over Italy. You could call them ravioli—the very first examples of them dating back to the thirteenth century were. But regionally, these plump parcels of pasta encasing vegetables, meat, fish or cheese, go by many different terms, even if the concept—two sheets of paper-thin pasta encasing a filling to be boiled and served in sauce—is the same.
It is a wonderful concept. “The parts of the package where edges are compressed together to seal in the stuffing will be twice the thickness of the rest, so in the mouth there will be a range of textures, from soft to chewy, with the contrasting filling, and the dressing of melted butter and parmesan, adding to the sensory complexity," writes Gillian Riley in The Oxford Companion to Italian Food.
If you took a map of Italy and plotted the many regional variations of filled pasta on it, you would notice something interesting: They're mostly in the north and are practically non-existent in the south. One reason for this is the use of eggs in pasta, which you'll find on the same map from the center of the country and northward. Eggs give the pasta sheet tremendous elasticity—in other words, you can roll it very, very thin and you can bend it, fold it, and seal it.
Once you can do that with pasta, you can fill it and shape it in countless ways:
The most common type of ravioli is found in Tuscany, Lazio, and Le Marche: round or square, cut with a frilled pastry roller or simply a sharp knife, sometimes sealed with a crimped edge thanks to the tines of a fork. The most classic versions are filled with ricotta and spinach, and served with anything from tomato sauce to liquid butter. Then there are seasonal variations: chestnut-filled ravioli in autumn, for example.
There are provincial variations, too: In northern Tuscany, tortelli is the name for mashed potato-stuffed ravioli, served in a meat sauce; in southern Tuscany, tortelli are oversized, square ricotta and spinach ravioli, with a wide space around the filling, always in a meat sauce.
Head slightly north to Emilia-Romagna and tortellini (which literally mean “little tortelli”) are tiny, delightful packages of meat-filled pasta, often served in a clear meat or chicken broth—classic Christmas or Sunday lunch fare. Bologna and Modena argue over who claims the “real” tortellini recipe. In Bologna, it's a filling of mortadella, prosciutto, roast pork loin, parmesan, egg, and nutmeg, covered in a sheet of hand-rolled pasta, and then folded and twisted in a shape that some romantic gastronomists say resemble Venus' bellybutton.
In the town of Ferrara, close to the border of Veneto in northern Emilia-Romagna, they are famous for their cappellacci (named after a type of straw hats), which are shaped similarly to tortellini. The difference is cappellacci are a large, plump version that dates back to the sixteenth century, generously filled with squash and served in sage-infused melted butter.
Skip up further north to the alps of the Venetian Dolomites and in Cortina d'Ampezzo you can find the crescent-shaped, beet-filled pasta known as casunziei or casonsei, which are served with a delicate sauce of butter and poppy seeds. They're as beautiful as they are delicious.
Meanwhile, on Italy's northwestern coast of Liguria, there is a version of ravioli called panzotti or pansoti, which are often triangular or half moon-shaped. Filled with wild herbs, such as borage (or other greens such as chard and arugula in their absence), and a soft, fresh local cheese called prescinsêua (it's rather like a mix between ricotta and yogurt), these are served with a walnut sauce—a favorite for coating pasta in the region.
Next door, Piedmont is the home of agnolotti, small parcels of vegetables and meat (born as a way of using up leftovers from the previous night's roast) that are delicious in a buttery, caramel-colored sauce from the roasting tray. Often these are small, inch-long rectangles, but when they are agnolotti al plin, or “pinched” agnolotti, they gain a little pocket (an excellent place to hold sauce) made from folding over an extra flap of pasta which is then pinched by the action of the pastry cutter.
What are your favorite stuffed pasta recipes? Tell us in the comments below!
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