The Forgotten Creamy Tortellini And Ham Dish From The 1940s

Oftentimes, pasta dishes shine in their simplicity. A few well-melded components elevate the carb into a delicious affair. And while a few recipes have become beloved staples — like spaghetti and meatballs — others have faded into obscurity. Occasionally, there is a disconnect between Italian-American dishes and foods confined to the Old World peninsula. Some, such as lasagna, rest in both realms, while others are confined to a single side of the Atlantic.

A delicious creation neglected both in Italy and in the U.S. is tortellini with cream and ham. Invented in Bologna, where it's known as tortellini al la panna, this dish was all the rage during 1940s Rome. Small, circular-shaped tortellini hail from the northern Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and were first noted in print in 1289. Tortellini are historically associated with the culinary hotspot Bologna, where the modern creamy ham interpretation is believed to have originated. It's generally accredited to cook Cesarina Masi, who invented the dish in 1940. She later relocated to Rome, where she opened a successful restaurant frequented by actors, politicians, and other influential personas. As a result, tortellini alla panna surged into popularity, and even spread to the U.S. However, after the restaurant's closure, the dish declined into obscurity, and for a variety of factors, it became forgotten. 

Tortellini alla panna is a simple yet delicious dish

While tortellini alla panna may be an old-school dish of the past, it shouldn't be overlooked in the present. It is a simple pasta to make, yet it's delicious and comforting and would make for a perfect weeknight meal. Plus, the dish can be conveniently crafted with only a few components that you may already have on hand. 

It starts with tortellini, either store-bought or homemade. The exact ham type differs but typically a pre-cooked variety like prosciutto cotto is used. Traditionally, the small pasta was served in a broth, with Parmesan cheese added to thicken the dish and make it rich and creamy. However, as tortellini alla panna became popular in the U.S., the use of readily available heavy cream became more common, creating an even heartier and thicker dish. And for a dash of color and texture, many Italian-American interpretations incorporate frozen peas.