What Is Tortellini, Actually?

You ever walk down the pasta aisle at the grocery store and look at all the different shapes of pasta and think, “Wow, so many different varieties of what is, essentially, the same exact thing?” Rotini is farfalle is rigatoni is elbow macaroni, and I love every one of them. And then the Italians are like, “Hey, check this out,” and they roll out the tortellini. Boom, game changer. Tortellini isn’t like other pasta—but why? Find out. 

What is tortellini pasta?

The word tortellini is a double diminutive in Italian. The starting word is “torta,” meaning cake, which is lessened to “tortello”—a filled pasta similar to ravioli—and finally we get to “tortellini,” which basically makes it a small-small cake.

Tortellini is a filled pasta, living in the realm of ravioli, agnolini, and cappelletti. It is known for its distinctive shape—I personally think they look like tiny croissants with high collars, but that comes from my flights of fancy in the grocery aisles.

Many Italians, especially those near the cities of Bologna and Modena, think tortellini looks like a belly button, thanks to a certain legend surrounding the pasta. As the story goes, the goddess Venus was staying at an inn. The curious, pervy innkeeper spied on her through a keyhole—but all he could see was her navel. That was enough, though, and he used that as inspiration for the shape of tortellini. 

Just as Helen’s face launched a thousand ships, Venus’s navel launched a thousand tortellinis. 

What’s in tortellini?

The traditional filling for a tortellini contains the following: parmigiano reggiano cheese, egg, nutmeg, and some kind of pork meat like mortadella or prosciutto. The premade tortellini you can find in the store, however, is filled with all manner of things. There are ones filled with different kinds of cheese, spinach, mushroom, and chicken.

What sauce goes with tortellini?

When it comes to stuffed pasta, you have to be careful when adding a sauce. You want something that is going to complement the stuffing while not distracting from it. And traditionally, tortellini are served in a chicken broth, not in a sauce. So if you want the most authentic tortellini dish, that’s how you serve it.

That’s not to say you can’t serve tortellini in pasta sauce, of course. A simple garlic butter sauce or a cacio e pepe can work wonders while not detracting from the tortellini taste. And a creamy tomato sauce can mesh with the cheese and meat inside, if used lightly. 

What’s the difference between tortellini and tortelloni?

I have a bag of tortellini in one hand and a bag of tortelloni in the other, and I am desperately searching for the difference between the two, outside of the one changed vowel in their name.

The primary difference comes down to size; the tortelloni is about double the size of tortellini. Also, tortelloni is traditionally filled with ricotta cheese instead of parmigiano, and spinach and herbs instead of meat. 

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

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