Food /
Flavors of Italy

Cappelletti vs Tortellini

I open my eyes and an inebriating smell floods my room.

I still don’t know if I woke up instinctively, or it was the powerful smell that awakened my senses. I don’t even know what time it is, but I do know it is Sunday and we Italians love to take everything at a slower pace on this particular day, savoring every little bit of time that passes.

On Sundays you wake up with the quiet and calmness of someone who has a whole day or, how some would say, a whole life at your disposal. Alarmless, letting the sun’s rays rest on your pillow and warm up your cheeks, a slow awakening most probably followed by a coffee at the bar and an unmissable midmorning aperitivo with friends. You wouldn’t want to end your week without the latest gossip or weekly football discourse, right?

Today is Sunday, nothing else matters, the commitments with moral duties are suddenly canceled, erased, they are all postponed to tomorrow. I could very well stay in bed lazing around and leafing through the pile of books that sits on my bedside table calling for my undivided attention. But today, I can’t seem to focus on anything, I’m fully distracted by the intense aroma coming into my room, and no, it’s not of coffee. But I know what it is… 

The peak of Sunday is lunch. Not any casual afternoon meal (although none of our meals are casual) but this one is definitely the most meaningful and anticipated one of the week. For this grand occasion no one else could be in charge of the kitchen but my grandmother, making nothing other than my favorite: cappelletti in brodo (broth). Despite their delicate flavor, their scent stands out more than any other food, seeping out of the kitchen into the whole house and, without failure, brings back a myriad of memories and emotions which come flooding back as if opening Pandora’s box. Suddenly my stomach is empty as can be, I’m incredibly hungry and can’t wait to rush to the table. At this moment, I would even consider skipping breakfast! 

As a true Emiliana (born and raised in the region of Emilia Romagna), precisely from Reggio, the difference between tortellini and cappelletti, the pasta of my region, is almost imperceptible but crucial and source of colossal arguments. 

When mentioning the two, don’t get confused, they are similar but not the same and a wrong response may consequently lead to unwanted and unpleasant words on behalf of my fellow citizens. Our pride for cappelletti is as big as the Neapolitans’ for pizza, we are always ready to defend and do it justice. 

The substantial differences between cappelletti and tortellini are the shape, the filling and the way in which the two edges of the “triangle” of puff pastry are closed and joined. Both are made with pastry, preferably homemade by hand. According to tradition, legends, and mythology, the tortellino is so narrow and minute in order to resemble the navel of Venus, an analogy of perfection, fertility and life itself. The cappelletto, on the other hand, is usually larger and if it is to recall a Venus, it would be as conceived by Botero: rounder and full of health, emanating a sense of well-being just by looking at it. 

The key difference: the filling. Tortellini usually have a raw filling and depending on whether you are closer to Modena or Bologna you will find more meat or more Parmigiano Reggiano. As for the cappelletto, the filling is the so-called stew. Try to extort any information about this delicacy from the secret keepers, grandmothers, and you will get nowhere. They will never fully explain or easily reveal the details behind what differentiates a  good tortellino from a great one, they will elegantly and sneakily hide some details and if you try to point out the lack of clarity in their explanation you’ll be quickly silenced with an authoritarian look and a gentle smile. All of this makes the filling almost impossible to replicate. 

Last but not least, the closure of the puff pastry triangle, another fundamental element that allows you to tell them apart at first glance, together with the size which is a direct consequence of its closure. At first the dough is rolled out and then sectioned into several rectangles. These are then stuffed with the appropriate filling and closed on themselves to form a triangle. The smaller-shaped tortellino can be closed by rolling both flaps around the pinky – or the index finger for the less dexterous. Instead, the cappelletti are simply joined, by uniting the outer flaps, yet there are those who prefer to close them around the pinky just like with tortellini in order to give them a more rounded circumference and pleasant look. 

When my grandmothers found out that I was writing an article on these two pastas, one called me frantically worried that I would divulge her secret recipe and the second called me confused, not understanding the purpose of writing an article about something “so simple”, which in reality is far from simple. The truth is that every self-respecting Italian Rezdôra (housewife)  has her own variant, and if you expect it to be revealed to you easily, you’re already starting off on the wrong foot. Only time, dedication and a lot of attention to detail will help you understand and unveil all their secrets. How can we blame them, grandmothers grew up cooking as if it were a game, or better a full time job. Many of them spent more time in the kitchen than anywhere else, dedicating days and hours to preparing food for the whole family. Here they made their recipes their pride and joy, secrets to pass only from generation to generation to those worthy of such treasures. And so, it usually comes naturally, like an instinctive desire to communicate the whole story of a “simple” recipe. A story of tired hands, from a different generation, with fewer perspectives but with much more dedication every time it came to roll up your sleeves and reinvent yourself, even if that meant becoming a housewife at thirteen. For this reason, whether it be cappelletti or tortellini, these dishes became something that identifies us from within. We hardly ever eat them together with friends, they are a sacred ritual. They are eaten in the family and no matter what diet you are following, vegetarian or vegan, you will never say no to your grandmother, you will never say no to a hot plate of cappelletti in broth that awaits you at the table steaming, warming you up from within, starting from the heart.

So when asked what do you prefer? Tortellini or cappelletti? 

The answer is not simple, but the truth is that there is no answer you will regret.