Bologna & Emilia-Romagna

Erudite, informed, irreverent and intelligent.

Sunday Times

Bologna & Emilia-Romagna is by far the most comprehensive guidebook.

Daily Telegraph

Evocatively charming.

New York Daily News

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The Navel of Venus – an excerpt from Bologna & Emilia-Romagna

If the first father of the human race was lost for an apple, what would he not have done for a plate of tortellini?

an old saying in Bologna

On the whole, the Bolognese are not an excitable race , but they are gaga on the subject of tortellini. For many, even the city’s famous university, the oldest in Europe, pales before plump rings of pasta stuffed with meat and cheese as Bologna’s culminating cultural achievement. Men have even fought for the honour of tortellini; in the 1920s, when a visiting Venetian dared to insult them, a Bolognese postman beat him up so badly that one ended up in the hospital and the other in jail (sentenced to six months without tortellini).

The first reference to turtlein, as they are known in the local dialect, go back to the 12th century, when they were given to priests as Christma, and to this day no Christmas table in the city is complete with a bowl of tortellini in capon broth. A recipe discovered in a 14th-century manuscript prescribes a stuffing similar to the one used today, although it was a certain Adelaide, the wife of a Bolongese notary, who produced in the year 1821 the first canonical tortellini filled with minced ham, veal, mortadella, Parmesan cheese and nutmeg. In 1963, the Accademia del Tortellino was founded to perfect Adelaide’s recipe. Although tortellini-stuffing and folding machines have simplified the lives of countless chefs, the Accademia disdain them; a handmade tortellino, after all, contains 20 to 30 percent more filling.

In Bologna, tortellini have passed beyond the realm of culinary science into dewy-eyed myth. Their shape was supposedly modelled on a woman’s navel, a navel so beautiful that it could only belong to Venus herself. A popular 17th century poem told how the goddess of love stopped at an inn, disguised as a mortal; the cook there had a glimpse of her naked, and was moved to model his pasta on the shape of her navel. In 1925, a play in Bolognese dialect called The Man who Invented Tortellini follows the same theme, only the navel in this case belonged to the wife of the cook’s employer; after stumbling into her boudoir by accident one day and catching a fateful glance, the cook invented tortellini as a love letter.

© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls