Ravioli: a thousand years, a thousand names

Ravioli: a folded parcel of egg and flour – or in some places, of water and flour – stuffed with a filling, boiled in water or broth, and served with whatever you fancy. But this parcel of fresh stuffed pasta, generous in size and versatile in its uses, goes by a thousand names; and there are many thousands more ways of making and eating them.

The origins of ravioli-making go back to the first centuries of the second millennium, even if certain sources like to see the so-called “Apician Cake” (patinam apicianam), popular in early Christian Rome, as a sort of raviolo prototype. After all, surely we can see "tortelli" – to use ravioli’s other name – as little cakes? But the first real undeniable evidence of a comparable recipe comes from the fourteenth-century Boccaccio, who, along with maccheroni, cited ravioli as a popular foodstuff in his Decameron.

We’re not quite sure where the word comes from. Some argue that it goes back to the Italian “rivolto”, which means something like “folded over”; others trace it back to "rapiola", meaning a small rapa (turnip, in Italian). Others find an etymon in "rovigliolo", which means knotted, tangled. And others put their faith in Pellegrino Artusi, who defined the way we speak about Italian cuisine. He used the word "raviggiuolo" to refer to the ricotta cheese that went inside the pasta. Over time, this word became shorthand for the pasta itself.

A raviolo by any other name would taste as good. They’re Agnolotti in Piedmont and all the way to Pavia, Anolini around Piacenza and Parma, Marubini around Cremona and the lower reaches of Piacenza, Tortelli in Emilia and in Lombardy, Pansoti in Liguria, Tordelli in north-western Tuscany and south-eastern Liguria, Cappellacci in Ferrara, Cappelletti in Ravenna,  Ravioli or Agnolotti in Le Marche, Ravaiuolo in Irpinia, Maccaruni Chini in certain stretches of the south, Cauzoni in the Cilento. And for each name, there’s a different recipe.

All these recipes are inseparable, really, from their birthplaces; and as is customary in Italy, the invention of this or that version is disputed by rival claimants. Ferrara and Mantua both claim tortelli di zucca (pumpkin-stuffed ravioli), while Crema regards itself as sole progenitor of the Tortello Cremasco. Colorno, near Parma, produces a curious "tortèl dols" (sweet ravioli, in the local dialect), made with a filling of watermelon. Then of course, there’s the boring old debate about whether Parma or Piacenza can take credit for anolini.

We can’t say whether these old arguments actually have real historical conflict behind them. All stuffed pasta is really shrouded in mystery, not least one of those most beloved by modern chefs, the beautiful "agnolotti del plin", meaning “pinched agnolotti”. Some say that they were traditionally brought in a white napkin, plain and without any sauce, to the workers in the vineyards of Langa. Others maintain that they have stolen the limelight from the true Piedmontese agnolotto, which is bulkier and squarer.

And us? Ah, we give up. We’ll just make them and eat them, magno cum gaudio.


They did nothing but make and cook maccheroni and raviuoli...
[Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron]