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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


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.


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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For members


Sagra: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

If you're visiting Italy in autumn, don't miss the many local food and drinks fairs held around the country. Here are some to visit this October.

Sagra: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

One of the best things about visiting Italy in the autumn is having the opportunity to attend a sagra, a type of harvest festival or fair centred around one particular food or drink item local to the town hosting it.

sagra has a fairly broad definition: it could last for several weeks or one day, and might consist of anything from a raucous celebration with music and dancing to a lone food stall with a few wooden benches. It will usually be hosted in a field or a piazza, and entry is free.

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

What all sagre have in common is the focus on eating and drinking fresh local produce, and the assurance that you won’t leave unsated.

Now, the good news is that October is by far the month with the most sagre, with a wealth of events taking place throughout the country that are worth seeking out if you’re in the area. So, here are some of the best sagre happening across Italy this month.


Sagra della Castagna (chestnut festival), 7th-16th October in Calvanico, Salerno.  

Festa della Mela Annurca (‘annurca‘ apple festival), 28th-29th October in Valle di Maddaloni, Caserta.

Sagra del Cinghiale (boar festival), every Friday of the month in Dugenta, Benevento.

Emilia Romagna

Sagra della Salamina da Sugo (salami festival), 5th-9th October in Poggio Renatico, Ferrara.

Sagra del Vino Romagnolo (Romagna’s wine festival), 6th-9th October in Cotignola, Ravenna.

Sagra del Tartufo (truffle festival), 7th-9th October in Bondeno, Ferrara.

Sagra dell’Anguilla (eel festival), first three weekends of the month in Comacchio, Ferrara.


Sagra dell’Uva Cesanese del Piglio (‘Cesanese‘ grapes festival), 30th September-2nd October in Piglio, Frosinone.

Enorvinio (wine festival), 2nd October in Orvinio, Rieti.

Castelli di Cioccolato (chocolate castles festival), 7th-9th October, Marino, Rome.

Sagra delle Tacchie ai Funghi Porcini (‘tacchie‘ pasta and porcini mushroom festival), first two weekends of the month in Bellegra, Rome.

A street seller prepares roasted chestnuts in Rome.

Roasted chestnuts are a staple of Italy’s October ‘sagre’. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP


Castagnata a Caglio (chestnut festival), 2nd-9th October in Caglio, Como.

Festival della Mostarda (mustard festival), 15th October-30th November in Cremona.

Fasulin de l’Oc con le Cudeghe (beans and pork rind festival), 29th-31st October in Pizzighettone, Cremona.


Sagra delle Pesche (peach festival), 1st-2nd October in Leonforte, Enna.

Festa della Nocciola (hazelnut festival), 5th-6th October in Novara di Sicilia, Messina.

Funghi Fest (Mushroom festival), 21st-23rd October in Castelbuono, Palermo.


Sagra della Castagna (chestnut festival), 2nd October in Mathi, Turin.

Sagra del Ciapinabò (Jerusalem artichoke festival), 8th-9th October in Carignano, Turin.

Cioccolato nel Monferrato (chocolate festival), 16th October in Altavilla Monferrato, Alessandria.

Chocolate fair in Milan, Italy.

A number of chocolate festivals take place up and down the boot in October. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP


Sagra del Fungo Amiatino (‘amiatino‘ mushroom festival), 7th-9th, 15th-16th October in Bagnolo, Grosseto.

Sagra delle Frugiate (roasted chestnuts festivals), 9th and 16th October in Pescia, Pistoia.

Boccaccesca (local food festival), 14th-16th October in Certaldo, Florence.

Sagra del Tordo (local food festival), 29th-30th October in Montalcino, Siena.


Sagra del Calzone (calzone festival), 14th-16th October in Acquaviva delle Fonti, Bari.


Festa del Baccalà (cod festival), 30th September-2nd October and 7th-9th October in Montegalda, Vicenza.

Festa delle Giuggiole (jujubes festival), 2nd and 9th October in Arquà Petrarca, Padua.

Mele a Mel (apple festival), 7th-9th October in Mel, Belluno.

Festa della Patata (potato festival), all Sundays of the month in Tonezza del Cimone, Vicenza.


Primi d’Italia (national first courses festival), 29th September-2nd October in Foligno.

Sagra del Sedano Nero e della Salsiccia (black celery and sausage festival), 15th-16th October in Trevi, Perugia.

This list is not exhaustive. Did we miss out your favourite October sagra? Leave a comment below to let us know.