I grew up in New Jersey, in a half Italian family. We ate pasta all the time. Yeah, most of it came from a box, but there were special times like Christmas Eve, where the Italian side of the family would go all out. I grew up eating lasagna, ravioli, and of course spaghetti. But when traveling to Italy and Emilia Romagna, I realized how many different kinds of pasta there really are. This was especially the case with Emilia Romagna pasta. Sure, there were some pasta dishes that looked familiar, but then there were others that were brand spanking new. And I promise there wasn’t a single plate of spaghetti bolognese in sight.
One of the Emilia Romagna pasta dishes which was most familiar to me was torteloni, a small half-moon shaped pasta, generally stuffed with cheese or meat. In Emilia, it is most commonly eaten in a cream sauce. It quickly became a comfort food for us, and one of us ordered it almost every day for the two weeks we were in the Emilia Romagna region. We even learned how to make torteloni during a cooking class at La Piazzetta Del Gusto in Nonantola. Mine came out pretty good, and restaurant quality. Eric’s needed a bit of work for sure.
Another version of torteloni in Emilia Romagna quickly became a favorite: torteloni drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with local parmigiano reggiano cheese. The savory flavor of the pasta was offset perfectly by the sweet taste of the balsamic vinegar. We were lucky enough to have this dish many times, including during a winery tour outside of Bologna, and at Acetaia Pedroni, a famous balsamic vinegar producer.
So what then is the difference between torteloni and tortellini? At first, this was confusing to me. But I remembered that in Italian, anytime the letters “ini” are added at the end of a word, it means smaller, so tortellini is a smaller version of torteloni. And having seen how hard it is to make tortellini just right, I could only imagine how hard it is to make them even smaller.
The most common way to eat tortellini is in a light broth, particularly during the winter months. Tortellini al brodo is also a must-eat dish for Christmas.
Another Emilia Romagna pasta that has grown in popularity in recent years in the US and around the world is gnocchi, which is actually made with potato – a dense, round, ball of potato. We learned to make gnocchi as well during our pasta making class with Yummy Italy. In this case, Eric did a much better job of rolling the gnocchi to give it texture, and was able to make the perfect press in the middle with his thumb. This is what gives the gnocchi a little character, and also helps it to hold the pasta sauce better. My favorite gnocchi dish in Emilia Romagna, was of course the one loaded with truffles during our truffle dinner at d’Amerigo in Savigno.
Tagliatelle is a pasta than can often be confused with many other Italian pastas, including fettuccine, pappardelle and linguine. They are each different variations of a similar pasta. Tagliatelle is made by rolling out the pasta until it is so thin you can almost see through it. Then, the pasta is cut with a knife to make it the perfect thickness. When trying to make tagliatelle during a pasta making class, I was told mine was too wide, making it pappardelle. Regardless of its width in this case, it is best served in Emilia Romagna with meat ragu. Just don’t call it spaghetti bolognese.
Passatelli is particular to Emilia Romagna, and was entirely new to us during this trip. It’s a traditional pasta that is thicker than many other pastas and has a more floury, dense taste to it. As dense as it is though, it is also much more delicate than it appears. This Emilia Romagna pasta is made with parmigiano cheese, bread crumbs, egg, flour and sometimes nutmeg. The mixture is run through a press, almost like a garlic press, to form its eel like shape. It has a texture, or a roughness, which allows the sauce to hold onto the pasta more than a smooth pasta would.
We tried to make our own passatelli. Well, we purchased already made passatelli and cooked it in our apartment. It only takes about 90 seconds to cook in the water, and even then, it sort of fell apart. I’ll leave the passatelli preparation to the Emilia Romagna pasta professionals.
Another pasta which was new to me during this trip. Garganelli is made in a similar way to tagliatelle, by rolling the pasta very thin. Instead of cutting with a knife, though, a pasta roller is used to cut the pasta into asymmetrical squares. Then a pettine is used, which looks like the world’s smallest laundry board. Pettine translates to “comb”, and it does look a little like an ancient comb.
The pasta is rolled around a wooden stick, over this little pettine to make groves on its outside, again, as a way to hold the sauce. Although similar to what is called rigatoni in the US, garganelli is softer and sort of collapses beautifully when cooked, and is then layered with sauce. We learned to make garganelli at a cooking class at Fattoria Maria. In this case, neither Eric nor I could get it right.
It’s amazing all of the different ways the Italians can make something as seemingly simple as pasta. These Emilia Romagna pasta dishes really knocked my socks off, and probably added a lot to my growing waistline.
Planning a Trip to Emilia Romagna?
Looking for more travel tips on Emilia Romagna, and how to eat the best food in Italy? My book The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to taste the history and tradition of Italy, is available on Amazon now. If you are a NOOK reader, it is also available for download on Barnes and Noble.
What is your favorite kind of Italian pasta?
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.