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Ask an expert: What’s the difference between Italian tortellini and tortelloni?

Italian tortellini.
What's in a vowel? When it comes to Italian pasta, it makes all the difference. Photo: Stefano Segato on Unsplash
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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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