It’s autumn in the northern Italian province of Mantua – a crisp, chilly breeze from the distant mountains chases away the summer sun, and the falling leaves turn the trees and sidewalks a vivid collage of colorful browns and reds, yellows and ambers. In Lombardia, this is the time of year when the plains are dotted with haystacks, the grapes are newly harvested, woodlands turn golden and the towns along the Oglio River, a tributary of the Po which originates in the mountain village of Ponte di Legno, take on a particularly cozy and welcoming atmosphere.
It is also the season when the star of the local autumn harvest, the pumpkin – called zucca in Italian – becomes the main ingredient of many inspired dishes: roasted in the oven, turned into gnocchi, added to risottos and soups, made into cakes – and of course used as a filling for Mantua’s famous tortelli di zucca.
This sweet and savory autumn comfort food has a long history here and has become symbolic as one of the most well-known pasta dishes from this northern province. Genuine and delicious, the recipe is an aromatic meeting of soft sweet pumpkin blended with a few other simple ingredients and folded inside fresh-made pasta, which is then cooked and tossed with melted butter.
The origins of the dish first began with the tradition of filling pasta which became typical in the northern regions of Italy starting in the late Middle Ages. The addition of the pumpkin came a few centuries afterward when the first Spanish colonists brought new plants such as potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and pumpkins from the Americas to Europe. The fertile Po Valley turned out to be ideal terrain for pumpkins and soon the gourd became part of the local culinary tradition.
At that time the area was ruled by the Gonzaga family who controlled the areas of Mantua, Monferrato in Piedmont and Nevers in France. The court was known for employing some of the best chefs around, and during the 1500s the first recipe for tortelli di zucca was created and served at the Ducal Palace.
Since then, the tradition of the pumpkin-filled pasta spread throughout the region and beyond – at times taking on slight variations, such as that of serving the tortelli in tomato sauce or with sausage. Today non-traditional presentations serve the pumpkin ravioli with truffle, pistachios, and any other number of ways – all delicious.
Yet, the simple, scrumptious, savory flavor of the traditional recipe has no competition; and as the cool weather rolls in, a day spent in the province of Mantua, experiencing the beauty of the area and finding a cozy place to taste this delightful autumn dish, is a must.
There, tucked away in the small town of Runate, just south of the city of Mantua, set in the fields and park along the Oglio River is an atmospheric restaurant owned and run by the Santini family for almost a century – Dal Pescatore al Canneto, winner of three Michelin stars. Established by a couple of young newly-weds, Antonio and Teresa Santini, in 1926, Dal Pescatore al Canneto has been preparing their pumpkin tortelli for decades – with their recipe becoming one of the restaurant’s most beloved and sought-after preparations by diners both local and foreign.
Here, these delectable tortelli are prepared fresh by hand every day and are a treat not to be missed. However, if making it all the way to Mantua isn’t feasible, Chef Nadia Santini of Dal Pescatore al Canneto, voted best female chef in the world in 2013, offers her restaurant’s recipe for making Mantua’s most iconic comfort food right at home.
One note before starting, the ideal preparation begins with choosing the best and freshest ingredients. So, when choosing the pumpkin, be sure to search for one that is heavy with a dry stem and deep ribbing.
Ingredients for 4 people:
For the filling
– 150 grams of pumpkin – cooked and passed through a sieve
– 20 grams of ground amaretti biscuits (originally ground peach or apricot pits were used)
– 50 grams of mostarda (a spicy Northern Italian fruit preserve with mustard)
– 20 grams of grated Parmigiano Reggiano
For the pasta
– 1 whole egg + 1 egg yolk
– 100 grams of type 00 white flour
– 1 pinch of salt
For the sauce
– 50 grams of butter
– 20 grams of grated parmigiano reggiano
Cut a 300-gram slice of the pumpkin and boil it in lightly salted and sugared water for 30 minutes or until it is soft enough to be passed through a sieve. The addition of sugar to the boiling water helps to compensate for any of the pumpkin’s natural sugars lost during cooking. Meanwhile, mash up the mostarda. Remove the pumpkin from the water, eliminate the skin and pass it through a sieve. Add the purée to the ground amaretti biscuits, the mostarda, the Parmigiano Reggiano and all of the spices. Mix the ingredients together, leave the mixture to cool off and begin preparing the pasta.
Create a well in the middle of the flour and break the whole egg and the yolk into it. Combine the ingredients until a dough forms that is homogeneous and porous. Roll out the dough using a pasta-making machine or a rolling pin and then cut out large squares about 8 centimeters wide. Place a bit of the pumpkin mixture in the center, about 6-8 grams, and fold the dough over diagonally to close, being sure to line up the two diagonal points, and then fold it over again to form a candy shape. Press firmly to seal the edges so that no filling will come out.
Once all of the tortelli have been made, place them in boiling water and cook them for about 5 minutes. Serve them with melted butter and grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
Article written by Liana Bicchieri