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Tortellini, The Dumpling Inspired By Venus' Navel

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Tortellini, The Dumpling Inspired By Venus' Navel

Foodways

Tortellini, The Dumpling Inspired By Venus' Navel

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

I'm Renee Montagne. And all this week, we here at MORNING EDITION are celebrating the dumpling, visiting countries across the globe and showcasing all shapes and sizes of these tasty dough packages.

Today, we go to a dumpling mecca, Italy, and talk tortellini. The small circles of rolled dough folded around a filling were born in Italy's Emilia region, where they're strictly served as dumplings in broth. Possibly no Italian foodstuff is surrounded by so much history and legend.

And as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, tortellini has long been a pillar of local family traditions.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The town of Castelfranco Emilia lies halfway between the gastronomic giants Bologna and Modena. Legend has it that Venus, the goddess of love, once stayed at a local tavern. Spying on his guest through the keyhole, the innkeeper got a partial glimpse. Struck by what he saw, he rushed to his kitchen, rolled out a sheet of fresh egg pasta, and invented a shape inspired by Venus's navel.

Every year, Castelfranco Emilia celebrates its favorite son, the nameless inventor of the most sensual of all pasta shapes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

POGGIOLI: Drummers, flag-throwers and local residents parade through town dressed in elaborate Renaissance costumes. On a makeshift stage, the legend of the peeping-tom innkeeper and the goddess is reenacted.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE PLAY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Italian spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Tortellino.

POGGIOLI: Inspired by the sight of the divine navel, the Master of Ceremonies intones: Our innkeeper invents the prestigious tortellino.

While its origins may not be in antiquity, the first known tortellino recipe dates to 1570. Since then, it's the number-one symbol of Emilia's gastronomic culture, and an integral part of local family life.

MASSIMO BOTTURA: I grew up under the kitchen table that's keeping my older brothers at my grandmother's, where flour fell on my feet.

POGGIOLI: Massimo Bottura runs a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena. He told an international gathering of famous chefs that tortellini bring out a competitive spirit.

BOTTURA: Every family has its own recipe for tortellini: more parmigiano, less parmigiano. I don't put prosciutto. I want mortadella. There are more discussion about tortellini in our family and in every Emilian family, than about politica.

POGGIOLI: Politics and soccer are way outranked in Emilia by the desire to eat well, very well.

Making tortellini is hard work, long the domain of women known as sfogline. The word derives from sfoglia, the sheet of fresh egg pasta that's painstakingly rolled out by hand.

Grazia Battistini is 63 years old, and she's been a sfoglina for some 50 years.

GRAZIA BATTISTINI: (Through translator) Grandmothers and mothers handed down the tradition to daughters and granddaughters. We started when we were seven or eight years old. If we couldn't reach the tabletop, they gave us a stool to stand on. Little by little, we learned to roll and cut the pasta.

POGGIOLI: The process, Battistini says, involve the entire family.

BATTISTINI: (Through translator) It was a time for socialization. We were all together - men, women, children - preparing the pasta, the filling and the broth, all working collectively.

POGGIOLI: Battistini gives a solo demonstration. She mixes eggs and flour, then kneads the dough with the palm of her hands. Once shaped like a ball, she sets it aside and starts on the filling, a mix of prosciutto, mortadella, pork loin, eggs, parmesan cheese and nutmeg. Battistini then returns to the dough.

BATTISTINI: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: Her body sways rhythmically as she stretches the dough over and over again with a rolling pin, until it forms a large, paper-thin sheet.

BATTISTINI: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: Battistini then cuts the sheet into tiny squares and puts a dab of filling in the center, folds the square into a triangle, presses it, then rolls it around her index finger, and out comes the belly-button-shaped dumpling. Like most Italians, Battistini has little patience for culinary experimentation.

BATTISTINI: (Through translator) The tortellino can only be served in broth. That's what tradition teaches us. Of course, some people today serve it with butter, cream or tomato sauce, but they're killing the taste of the filling.

POGGIOLI: In the 1960s, Italian women began working outside the home. Many no longer know how to make fresh pasta. Now, a group of young local graphic designers have produced an app to safeguard the tortellino's role in the local culture.

Lucia Barbieri says it's aimed at teaching everyone - including men - how to make tortellini.

LUCIA BARBIERI: (Through Translator) When I get together with a group of friends to make pasta, it's the men who are most enthusiastic as they learn this art which has always belonged to women.

POGGIOLI: A new business has opened in the center of the Bologna - it's a tortellino-to-go joint. It caters to students, office workers - and even, housewives - who can order online. It's the brainchild of Federico Spisani, who left his bank job and enlisted an army of sfogline - several of whom are in the '80s - to prepare fresh pasta every day. Servings come in Styrofoam cups.

FEDERICO SPISANI, TORTELLINO BOLOGNA: I try to unite the Italian quality of food, the best in my opinion in the world, in a very fast food way - cheap and fast, you know.

POGGIOLI: As we leave, two well-dressed middle-aged women enter the shop circumspectly and, probably hoping nobody will recognize them, they order two servings of takeaway tortellino.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And we'd loved to see the dumplings you love to make. Send photos to MORNING EDITION @npr.org, or shared them on Twitter and Instagram, with the hashtag #nprdumplingweek.

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