This pasta shape has always intrigued me from the first time I ate this dish in Italy. They're called tortelli Piacentini and are found only in the area around Piacenza, where my relatives live. They're made in two versions, but it's this pinched and pleated version that I wanted to tackle on my most recent trip, and my cousins Lucia and Luisa were more than willing to help me in my quest.
We started with all the ingredients necessary for making the pasta and the filling - flour, eggs, ricotta, spinach, nutmeg, and parmesan cheese. Italians use a flour labeled "00" for making pasta. It's ground much finer, and makes a much more supple dough. There's even a "00" flour that is superfine - practically like baby powder. Apparently, there is a mistaken belief that "00" flour contains less gluten, but according to Jeffrey Steingarten, author of the book "It Must've Been Something I Ate," flours of various protein levels can be milled to the "00" category. Steingarten had different samples of flour analyzed by a lab and found that the "00" flours were higher in protein than many of the less refined flours. Flours labeled "panifiable" in Italy mean they're good for bread.
You could substitute regular all-purpose flour, but the texture is different. Italian "00" flour produces a more tender pasta but with a nice bite. Here in the U.S., it may be hard to track down in stores, but you can order it online in several places. King Arthur sells it (here) or you could order the Caputo brand (here) that comes even in the superfine version.
My cousins started out rolling the dough by hand, rather than through a pasta machine. Since Lucia (on the right in the photo below) won the "Miss Tagliatella" competition in the region a few years ago, she had a reputation to maintain, so the machine stayed on the shelf while the rolling pins came out.
Here's a video on how they made the pasta dough and the filling. There's a little sisterly ribbing going on (in Italian of course) about whether it's better to use parmigiano reggiano or grana padano in the filling and whether it's better to roll out the dough by hand or use a food processor. In the video, Luisa mentions she uses 3 etti of flour. In the metric system, one kilo is 2.2 pounds (35.2 ounces) and there are 10 etti in a kilo, hence one etto is 3.5 ounces or about 1/4 pound.
After the dough was rolled so thinly you could almost read through it, they cut small circles using an old implement that's been in the family for decades. Of course you could use a cookie cutter or any other implement that makes circles.
A teensy bit of filling was added to each circle.
And then the pinching and pleating began.
Here's a video on how to shape the pasta.
At a certain point, they switched to making a kind of ravioli that sits at attention like a little package. This went a whole lot faster than the tortelli, as you can imagine.
We also made some tortellini and farfalle -- but just for fun -- not enough to make a meal. In all, it took us only an hour and a half to make this amount of tortelli Piacentini plus a bunch of the ravioli. There was leftover filling, but Lucia used it the next day to make crepes filled with the ricotta and spinach.
Here's how they look close-up. These are called tortelli "con la coda" ... or "with a tail" to distinguish from the other kind of tortelli from the region. That one looks more like a candy caramel with both ends twisted to keep the cellophane shut.
We ate them that night as a primo (first course) simply dressed with butter, sage and parmesan cheese.
Here is the recipe with ingredients listed in both in Italian and in English.
(my cousins also add a tiny bit of oil to the dough, something neither my aunt nor my mom used to use. It's your call).
printable recipe here
2 etti farina 00 per sfoglia
1 etto farina 00 (normale)
about 12 ounces all-purpose flour
or if you can get it:
8 ounces superfine 00 flour
4 ounces 00 flour
4 egg yolks
Mix the flour and eggs together. Knead until soft and supple. Let it rest at least 1/2 hour before rolling it out. Roll out thinly and cut into circles.
una manciata di spinaci, cotti e frullati
3 etti di ricotta
parmigiana reggiano o grana padano, grattugiato
a handful of spinach, cooked and chopped fine
12 ounces ricotta cheese
parmesan or grana padano cheese, grated
Mix the filling ingredients, then place a small spoonful near one edge of the circle. Start pinching the circle closed by bringing one side toward the middle. Then overlap with the other side and squeeze the two pieces of dough together. Continue squeezing and pinching the dough in the center, alternating to form a braided look.
Cook in boiling water, drain and serve with melted butter, sage and parmesan cheese.