tortelli di zucca, lombardy's autumn crown jewels
pasta of the month 007
The first-ever Pasta Social Club dinner took place five years ago, on the night before Thanksgiving. I hosted it for ten of my closest friends, fresh out of culinary school and stumbling to find my footing working the pastry line at Lilia in Brooklyn. I somehow managed to get time off for the holiday, and I made sure to use every spare moment to hone my novice pasta-making skills.
The evening’s menu was simple. There were cavatelli in some sort of tomato sauce, a couple of salads, maybe a dessert, though probably not considering my inadequate baking skills. There were also ravioli, filled with roasted squash and brown butter, and topped with more brown butter, seared brussels sprouts (because, Thanksgiving), and the super-special balsamic vinegar my husband and I brought back from our honeymoon in Italy. (This was the first recipe I’d created on my own and it’s still one of my favorites.)
I woke up that morning at the leisurely hour of 9 o’clock, unaware of how completely under-prepared and overconfident I was. Culinary school and a few shifts on the line must have given me a false sense of security—now, with years of experience and a cookbook to my name, I can hardly fathom this; my imposter syndrome has only grown—and I strolled into the kitchen with nary a vegetable chopped nor a cheese grated. (Thinking back, I’m sure it was total ignorance over confidence.) Needless to say, mistakes were made: As my friends arrived that evening, my morning calm had morphed into panic as I feverishly rolled pasta sheets and filled ravioli. The cavatelli dough was too sticky and I think I almost cried trying to make it a second, then a third time (my gallant husband ended up taking over cavatelli duty). I’d somehow decided one pot of water was enough to cook all 20 servings. And then, when I did finally get around the cooking the pasta, I dumped the whole tray, thick layer of semolina flour and all, into the water. (Note: Do not do this.)
I was lucky to have a sympathetic audience predisposed to liking my food. And, ultimately, the dinner was a success (I rinsed off every last glob of cooked semolina), with the festive squash ravioli being the clear winner of the day. Which finally brings me to today’s recipe, and our November Pasta of the Month: tortelli di zucca, pumpkin-filled pasta parcels from Lombardy.
Tortelli di zucca is one of this area’s most iconic dishes, and autumn is not complete without it. The pasta itself comes in a variety of forms, including rectangles and halfmoons (think of “tortelli,” like “ravioli,” as an umbrella term for many stuffed pasta shapes), and the filling too has slight variations depending on who and where you ask. In Mantua, home of the most famous version of tortelli di zucca, the star of the dish is zucca mantovana, a dense and dry-fleshed pumpkin that whips up into an especially vibrant and creamy filling. Add to that almond-flavored amaretti biscuits and a zingy condiment called mostarda di frutta—the local version, called mostarda mantovana, is typically made with quince and a few drops of mustard essence (so potent it’s sold in a dropper at the pharmacy)—and you have something truly unique. You’ll also find similar dishes in Emilia-Romagna, particularly Ferrara, where tortelloni lookalikes called cappellacci di zucca—sans the amaretti and mostarda—are typical of the season.
I talk a lot about pastas’ humble origins, but there are also those with wealthy pedigrees. Tortelli di zucca are one of them. Pumpkins (and squashes—the term “zucca” can refer to both) first made their way to Italy from Central America during the Renaissance, and in their newness they became popular among the aristocracy. Tortelli di zucca made a name for themselves not long after: A recipe appears as far back as 1544, written by Cristoforo Messisbugo, a cook who worked for Mantua’s ruling Gonzaga family. Over time, as pumpkins became ubiquitous and economical, the dish spread to small towns and peasant communities, gracing families’ tables during the cooler months and particularly on Christmas Eve. Today it remains a holiday staple, and an accessible alternative to more expensive and laborious dishes like Bologna’s tortellini.
I’ve written several tortelli di zucca-adjacent recipes over the years. None of them have been traditional, primarily because the two signature ingredients—the local pumpkin and mostarda—are impossible to source here in the States. The version I’m sharing with you today is the closest I’ve come to the real thing, after years of experimenting with different squash varieties, and finally whipping up some mostarda di frutta (though, admittedly, a much quicker version without the mildly terrifying mustard essence). Still, I couldn’t help but deviate from tradition just a little: Instead of the typical shapes these tortelli take, I opted for an envelope-style reminiscent of another stuffed pasta called casoncelli. My choice isn’t entirely unreasonable, though, because casoncelli also hail from Lombardy and are sometimes stuffed with amaretti biscuits, too.
As always, I’m here to offer inspiration. If you don’t have much of a sweet tooth or you don’t like almond-flavored things, skip the amaretti (though I might try to convince you anyway: I’m not a fan of the overly sweet and still found these delightful). If you’re looking for something speedier, substitute the mostarda for some lemon zest or omit it entirely. Personally, I loved finding a new way to use in-season apples and pears, and the result, I think, would be even better paired with cheese or meat. And, of course, feel free to fold the pasta into the more-traditional rectangles or halfmoons.
Although the day had its hurdles, I now look back fondly on the squash ravioli I made for my very patient friends. Perhaps the best part is that the dish, in some form or another, has become an annual tradition in my house, one that’s best kept with the helping hands of loved ones. So, if you’re looking for a festive project that the whole family will enjoy, I hope you’ll give this one a try.
Tortelli di Zucca, Mantua-Style
Serves 4 to 6