Time to Learn About Tortellini en Brodo: A Christmas Soup With Serious History

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The dish in question. Photo: Melissa Hom

The newest menu addition at Giano restaurant is Tortellini en Brodo, a traditional Christmas soup of handmade pasta and a rich capon broth. It should be on the restaurant's menu for the next couple months. And when chef Simone Bonelli first told us about it, we were excited! It's kind of the ultimate dish you want when it's cold out, right? So we sent Geoffrey Gray over to the restaurant to try it, and to get the lowdown on the super-traditional dish. Read his full report, below.

“So now it is time I tell you the legend of the tortellini,” Simone Bonelli says. It is cold in the basement of Giano, his restaurant off Tompkins Square Park, and the Italian chef is rolling out sheets of fresh pasta on a plywood table and dotting little squares with a ripineo we’ve been working on.

Today is Day Three, and the reason it’s all taking so long is because that’s the point. The plate Bonelli and I are making — tortellini en brodo — is an exercise in old-world patience, a defiance of modernity and efficiency.

In Modena, the city in northern Italy where the legendary engines for Ferrari and Maserati are made and where Bonelli is from, the dumplinglike tortellini soup is typically eaten only one day of the year, Christmas, so it’s crucial to get the steps of the recipe right, no matter how many days go by.

“If we don’t make the tortellini this way the tradition will die, and that would be horrible,” says Bonelli, who recently moved to Giano from the inventive Perbacco a few blocks away.

In Modena, when Bonelli was a boy, he learned how to make the dish from his grandmother, who spent hours closing up tortellini with her friends around the dining-room table and fried up leftover pasta dough and sprinkled the strips with sugar to appease the many nagging children in the kitchen. Bonelli also learned the plate’s origins from his father, who owned a gas station in Modena.

The soup was a peasant creation. The evolution started with the brodo, a rich broth favored by the ruling classes and made from boiled capon. By the time the broth was ready, all the flavor from the capon’s meat was gone. The house staff in the kitchens throughout Emilia-Romagna didn’t dare throw away edible meat; instead they peppered in crumbs of Parmesan cheese, then scraps of prosciutto or mortadella. The mixture was then ground into a ripineo and smidges were placed on tortellini small enough to fit on a spoon.

Which brings us back to the legend. It started a thousand or so years ago, after a battle between Modena and neighboring Bologna. After fighting one day, the gods Venus and Jupiter retreated to a tavern to spend the night. The innkeeper was so overtaken with Venus’s beauty he spied on her through a hole in the door. The only part of Venus’s body the peeping innkeeper could see was her navel. The innkeeper then retreated back to the kitchen.

“He’s horny and all he can think about is the shape of her belly button,” Bonelli says. “And that’s why we have tortellini.”

The recipe had started out with a massive pork loin, cleaned of all fat and cooked. Then veal, and sausage without fennel seeds ("So important, man!"). After cooking, the fatty juice from the meat is saved and boiled down. Meanwhile, prosciutto and mortadella are sliced and ground, along with the pork, veal, and sausage. We then mixed the ground meats with the boiled-down juice, a few eggs, and nutmeg, and blanketed the concoction with grated Parmesan, mixing and pounding into the precious ripenio.

The next step is the brodo. Instead of using a chicken to make the broth, Bonelli ordered a capon. He brings it to a boil in cold water, with the usual accoutrements: celery, onion, rosemary, thyme, careful to remove the fat. Four hours later, the brodo is ready. The color is a deep brown, almost like curry. It has a rich if not fatty taste, so much so that in Modena a splash of local Lambrusco is often used to cut it. And our tortellini … Unlike store-bought tortellini, which can have a slimy, plastic veneer when cooked, these precious darlings are delectably clean.

They also crunch. The broth is served hot, so the tortellini must be cooked super al dente because they continue to cook once the dish is served. And the power is the ripineo, the amalgam of pork loin, sausage, prosciutto, mortadella, and veal, which join forces to create mini-explosions of flavor.

“A universe of sensations for the mouth,” Bonelli says, and “a small piece of my heart.”