A Navel Approach to Pasta

What charming, culinary delight has its origins entwined with a peeping Tom?   The tortellino.   This single mouthful of flavorful filled pasta has a legend of Tele-novela proportion.  Grab a cappuccino and sit down, because I have two stories to tell you about this ubiquitous little pasta shape.

The first is a 14th century legend that claims Lucrezia Borgia, the femme fatale, illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI, spent the night at an inn in a small town, Castelfranco, (a stone’s throw from where my mother grew up in Modena, Italy). The innkeeper was captivated by her beauty and acting upon his attraction, peeked through the keyhole of her room. He could only see a glimpse of her body in the candlelight, specifically her navel. This innocent vision sent him into ecstasy and he was so inspired by what he saw, he headed straight to the kitchen and created a pasta that mimicked her lovely belly button.  Thus the creation of tortellini.

Another similar but more ancient legend, tells how during the Roman Empire, Venus and Jupiter arrived at an inn on the outskirts of Bologna one night, weary from their involvement in a battle. After much food and drink, they shared a room. The innkeeper, awestruck, followed them and peered through the keyhole. All he could see was Venus’s navel. Spellbound, he rushed to the kitchen and created tiny twisted packages of pasta in its image.


My first thoughts about these legends were shall we say, unappetizing. Really?  My favorite comfort food in the whole world, tortellini in brodo (broth) was inspired by an innie belly button?  Better than a big toe I suppose, but still rather unappealing.

This small pillow of pasta stuffed with an amalgam of meats, parmesan cheese, nutmeg, and other goodies, has always been the symbol for the culinary tradition of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.  There is even an organization called The Confraternita del Tortellino, a cooking guild devoted to dictating what actually constitutes tortellini and who wear robes and pasta-shaped pendants.  They registered a recipe in 1974 with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce, stating only exact proportions of pork loin, prosciutto crudo, Bolognese mortadella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, eggs and nutmeg was deemed to be the true filling.

photo 46

No matter what legend you subscribe or what fillings you choose, making these precious darlings is an exercise in old-world patience and a labor of love, but its end result is magnificent.  If you have ever tasted homemade tortellini you surely must know those plastic boxes of ringed pasta on the Safeway shelf are only masquerading as tortellini.  They don’t even come close to the real thing.

My mother and I and one of the Jr.s, recently made about 125 of these little gems.  The process is time intensive but so worth the raves from Dr. Love and everyone else at the dining table.  I lap the kudos up right along with the homemade broth the tortellini are bobbing in merrily.

Tortellini (makes more than you will have the patience for)

Basic Pasta Dough  (use your favorite recipe or grab one online)


1 cup of a mixture of ground chicken, ground pork loin, ground veal, prosciutto and mortadella chopped fine  (you can use any combination or all of the above meats)

1 tablespoon of butter & 1 tablespoon of olive oil

1 clove of garlic, minced & 1 tablespoon of onion, minced

1/4 cup of  parmesan cheese, grated

1 large egg, beaten

salt and pepper to taste

scant 1/8 cup of bread crumbs

1/2 tsp of nutmeg

Melt butter and oil in a pan over moderate heat. Add onion, garlic and cook 2-3 minutes.  In another pan cook meat until juices are clear and drain the fat.  Add nutmeg, salt and pepper. Remove from heat and cool slightly, then add garlic and onion, parmesan cheese, bread crumbs and egg, stir until smooth. Mixture should stick together easily, if not, I give it a little whirr in the food processor.

Next I take a piece of  rested pasta dough and roll it thin.  I could roll it out by hand, maybe calling in an assist from Dr. Love’s biceps.  You see, it has to be rolled pretty thin, thin enough to see your hand through the dough. I use a pasta machine instead and crank to the last setting. Perfect!

photo 1

    Now lay that beautiful scarf of pasta on a slightly floured surface and plant a row of 1/4 teaspoons of the filling right down the center about one inch or so apart.  Fold over the length of pasta to blanket the filling, seal the edge and around the fillings and cut into squares.  For a fancy border take your ruffled ravioli cutter or go simple and use a knife.

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You can leave them in little squares but then you can’t regale your guests with the belly button legend, so try the tricky part.  Take a square in your hands and fold up the sealed edge like a preppy collar.  Then using thumbs and index fingers, twist the ends towards you and press them together.  It takes a little practice and nimble fingers but I have great faith in your abilities to conquer this!  I am sure you can YouTube someone making tortellini if you need a visual.  Everyone has their own way of folding and twisting but it will come out fine no matter how you finagle it.

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Place your little beauties on a parchment lined cookie sheet, lightly dusted with flour.  You can place the whole pan in the freezer until a bit hardened and then store in a Ziploc bag if you want them for a future meal. When ready to eat, cook in boiling water for 3-5 minutes until al dente, drain and place them lovingly into simmering homemade beef or chicken broth and sprinkle with grated parmesan and fresh chopped italian parsley if you wish.

Now taste. See? You can thank me later.


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