Devour This: La Nonna’s Noodles

Making Mushroom Tortellini with Radiana DePoli Angelilli

For nearly three years during World War II—from 1943 to 1945—the Nazis occupied Venice, Italy. In that time, they starved the city’s residents through food-shipment blockades, pillaging citizens’ gardens and pantries and by prohibiting fishing. Venetians accustomed to eating regional dishes such as risotto and polenta adapted instead by making meals with rationed or black-market wheat flour.

As a resident of Venice during the occupation, Radiana DePoli Angelilli remembers that her family kept a small flock of chickens hidden in their household to provide eggs as a much-needed source of protein, eaten raw or stretched into pasta (they were only allowed gas for cooking one half-hour a day).

When the U.S. Army arrived to liberate the city, Radiana DePoli met a dashing American soldier named Arthur Angelilli. She married at age 15 and became 1945’s youngest war bride. With a big laugh, she says, “I broke the record!”

She and Arthur lived in Germany for several years before moving to the United States, eventually settling in Utah when Arthur took a job at Hill Air Force Base. The couple has three children and four grandchildren. Radiana, along with her son Robert Angelilli (pastry chef for the Trio Group) and daughter-in-law Amber Billingsley (pastry chef for Current and Stanza), helped steer me through their family’s recipe for tortellini, which they make for special occasions and holidays, assembly-line style.

“You don’t have to spend a fortune on fancy flour,” Robert says. “Plain all-purpose flour works just fine.”

Radiana cautions that whenever making pasta, measurements should be considered guidelines, rather than prescriptions, as factors such as the size of the eggs and ambient humidity might vary each time.

With just a bag of flour and some eggs, learning to make pasta is a “good, cheap thing to practice making,” says Robert. “Spend an afternoon with a bottle of wine, and you’ll perfect it.”

Tortellini Pasta Dough
10 ounces (approximately 2 cups) all-purpose flour
3 whole eggs (or 2 whole eggs plus additional three
yolks for a richer dough)
1 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients into a ball using a food processor, mixer with hook or paddle, or by hand in a bowl or on the countertop. Knead until all flour is incorporated. Add cold water a few drops at a time if the dough is too crumbly to stick together. Continue to knead dough by hand 3 to 5 minutes, or until uniform and smooth in texture and very elastic. Form into a flat disc about 1½ inches thick, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rest at room temperature for at least 15 minutes, up to 1 hour, if possible (the longer it rests, the easier the dough is to work with). In the meantime, make the mushroom filling.

Mushroom Filling
This recipe makes enough filling for approximately 1 pound of finished tortellini.

½ pound cremini mushrooms, finely chopped
¼ medium yellow onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt to taste
1 whole egg
¼ cup whole-milk ricotta cheese (fine curd)
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil

In a skillet over medium heat, sauté mushrooms with olive oil until soft and most liquid has evaporated. Add onions and continue to cook until soft; add garlic and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden. Remove from heat, transfer to a mixing bowl. Allow to cool to room temperature. Add egg, ricotta, Parmesan cheese and stir until well combined.

Prepare the Tortellini
Radiana Angelilli uses the same hand-cranked pasta roller she’s had for 50 years to transform the dough into the thinnest sheets possible. Since tortellini are folded over in several places, too-thick dough makes for tough pasta that won’t cook through evenly. Radiana describes the finished shape as “little belly buttons.”

Cut the dough into 4 equal pieces. Roll one piece through a pasta machine on the widest setting and keep on rolling it through smaller settings until the dough is at the thinnest one. Repeat with the other three dough pieces. Cut 2½-inch to 3-inch circles of dough using a cookie cutter or by tracing around the rim of a glass with a very sharp knife. Keep the pasta covered with a kitchen towel to prevent it from drying out.

Place one rounded teaspoon of filling in the center of each pasta circle, working in batches of no more than 8 to 10 at a time. With a pastry brush or your fingers, brush a very light coating of water around the edge of the dough circle. Pull dough over the filling to create a semi-circle, pushing as much air out of the filled center as possible as you go. Press edges together firmly with fingertips to seal.

Pick up the “corners” of the pasta semi-circle and bend them toward each other gently (the Angelillis call this step “breaking the back”) so as not to burst the filling pocket. Bring one end slightly on top of the other to overlap and slightly buckle the pasta edge up on one side. Give the overlapped ends a little squeeze to keep them well adhered.

As you go, place formed tortellini on a lightly floured baking sheet or large plate.

When ready to cook, drop tortellini into salted boiling water and stir gently so they don’t stick together. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, and strain. Serve as the Angelillis do with either a hearty pork-based tomato sauce, or simply with a drizzle of browned butter, generous sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and sea salt.

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