One of Buenos Aires’ greatest attributes is the close proximity to pasta no matter where you find yourself in the city. Walk down any street long enough and you will run across a small, family-run pasta “factory.” They’re easy to spot: A display case decorated with a dozen types of fresh pasta or pastel-colored cardboard boxes waiting to be filled with noodles usually figure prominently in the window. Peek inside and a cook dressed in a characteristic white frock is probably working the old machines that flatten dough into dozens of pasta shapes, long noodles, or square strips that are cut into circles, squares, or triangles that are later stuffed with sautéed vegetables or ham, and most likely, lots of mozzarella or ricotta cheese.
The legacy of Italian immigration—between 1870 and 1920 nearly 4 million Italians immigrated to Argentina, making up 25% of the population according to the 1914 census—isn’t just the frequency with which Argentinians consume pasta, but the furor and fanaticism that they attach to it.
In Buenos Aires, people are as loyal to their choice pasta shop as they are to their favorite football team. Every day of the week, but particularly on Sunday afternoons, long lines of customers grab a number and wait patiently to buy their favorite pasta and sauce by the kilo.
“I buy fresh pasta from Del Patrello or Soma, which are both close enough to where I live,” says cook and baker Trinidad Benedetti. “I don’t see the point in buying from anywhere else.”
Restaurants operate with the same mysticism and develop signature pasta dishes that birth legions of loyal fans, sometimes nationally. In the north Atlantic beach city of Mar del Plata, the Vespoli family lays claim to inventing the sorrentino, a round stuffed pasta known for its size—two, sometimes three times the size of a typical ravioli.
“Every pasta has its own personality,” writes Virginia Higa in her novella, Los Sorrentinos, a fictionalized account of her childhood spent with her relatives, the Vespolis. The original sorrentino was made with ham and cheese and, Higa writes, big enough to require three or four bites. The dish became so popular in Mar del Plata that the restaurant’s patriarch, Don Chiche, attempted (and failed) to patent the recipe in Buenos Aires.
Today, sorrentinos are found in restaurants and pasta shops all over the country. Amongst all the types of stuffed pasta, they feel the most emblematic, not just because they were invented here but because their size mimics the Argentine habit of eating with the eyes almost as much as the taste buds.
“Our food is defined by its abundance,” says Rosario Ranieri, the third-generation owner of Spiagge di Napoli, an Italian restaurant that has been a fixture of Buenos Aires’ Boedo neighborhood since 1926. Spiagge is known for its pasta, like hand-rolled fussiles al fierrito, a noodle that is spun around a thin rod to create a hollowed, corkscrew shape and finished off in a salsa that combines pesto, red sauce, cream, and slices of baked ham. Customers can order them by the kilo to share.
Spiagge makes their sorrentinos with ham and cheese topped with the diners’ choice of salsa; the filling was stacked so high that they looked like upside-down espresso cups.
Exercises in Abundance
I started my initial trials by focusing on the dough. Many restaurants finish sorrentinos in a metal tray in the oven, smothering them in sauce and cheese that melts until it’s bubbly and brown—it’s fantastic. Yet the traditional Argentinian dough made with all-purpose flour, eggs, and water doesn’t take full advantage of the finishing technique. The dough softens considerably and takes on a pillowy texture that I more readily associate with a varenyky than a slightly al-dente pasta. I wanted something stronger that would withstand an extra few minutes in the oven without creating a texture that is nearly indecipherable from its creamy, cheesy interior. So I turned to semolina.
Benedetti shared her recipe with me. It calls for 20 egg yolks for every kilo of semolina, resulting in a hard dough that requires no kneading, but instead a long resting time and extra folding and rolling.
After testing dough-resting intervals of 30, 60, and 90 minutes, I found that somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes was sufficient time to properly hydrate the semolina for a workable dough. The dough that rested for 30 minutes was stiff, grainy, and broke apart easily in the pasta maker, which I was ultimately able to correct during the rolling process but not without considerable patience. Doughs that rested for 60 minutes and beyond were easier to roll out and made for relaxed, workable doughs from the start.
This dough also needs to be folded over itself and fed through the largest setting of the pasta maker over and over again, the first few times dusting the dough with semolina to prevent sticking. The process creates soft, silky dough without sacrificing sturdiness.
As per Trinidad’s suggestion, I folded and rolled out my semolina dough a total of 12 times. With each turn through the pasta maker, the dough felt less stiff in my hands. After a final 30-minute rest, the dough was silky smooth and light yellow in color, and sturdy enough to be punched out with a round cutter to be stuffed with a generous amount of filling.
Choosing the Right Filling
I started by testing out the original filling: baked deli ham and mozzarella cheese in near equal parts. The combination was familiar and nostalgic but it felt like too simple of a payoff for a dough that required so much work. In my second trial, I stayed literal: baked ham, pancetta, mozzarella, and tybo, an Argentine block cheese similar to a Monterey Jack. The filling was tasty but I still felt like it didn’t merit the work of making them from scratch.
Then I remembered something that Rosario told me: “The salsa you put on top of the pasta is just as important, if not more, than the pasta itself.”
Rosario was referring to noodles with no filling, and was in no way encouraging me to stray too far from the accepted norms within the sorrentino canon, but I pretended that was exactly the wisdom she was imparting. I wondered: Could I create a totally novel filling that referenced the textures and flavors of the original ham and cheese, but with more of an unexpected wow factor?
My mind shifted to vegetarian options, first the usual suspects—eggplant, tofu, tempeh—before settling on king oyster mushrooms. Their bulbous shape, comparatively low moisture levels, and ability to take on a deep flavor and a luxurious texture that is both meaty and silky was exactly what I was looking for. Choosing the correct aromatics and spices to season the mushroom was essential to mimicking the lightness of the baked ham and the smoke of the pancetta: Fresh sage, thyme, and rosemary combined with crushed red pepper and nutmeg were key. Chopped leeks softened over low heat rounded out the butteriness that pork adds and mushrooms lack.
My intention was to mimic the fatty, savory flavor profile and the bite of the baked ham, and the mushroom mix checked off both boxes.
For the sauce, I took Rosario’s advice more literally and went with tradition. According to orthodoxy, ham and cheese sorrentinos should be served with salsa rosa, a simple mixture of cream, roma tomatoes, rosemary, and garlic. The sauce was important: it grounded the experiment with nostalgic familiarity.
I know that Don Chiche would not approve. Lucky for me, he never got that patent.
For the Pasta Dough: In a large bowl, combine semolina and salt. Form a well in the center about 4 inches wide. Pour egg yolks into well and, using a fork, beat thoroughly, then gradually begin incorporating the semolina into the eggs until a moist crumble forms. Gradually add water while using your hands to combine until a uniform, soft dough is formed. Wrap in plastic and let rest at room temperature for 1 hour 30 minutes.
Unwrap dough and set on a semolina-floured work surface. Using a semolina-floured rolling pin, flatten dough into an oblong shape about 1/2 inch thick. Set pasta maker to widest setting and pass dough through. Place the sheet of dough on a lightly floured work surface. Fold both ends in so that they meet at the center of the dough, and then fold the dough in half where the end points meet, trying not to incorporate too much air into the folds. Using the rolling pin, flatten dough to 1/2 inch thick. Pass the dough through the pasta rollers at the widest setting, then repeat the process 12 more times, dusting with semolina, as necessary—after roughly 6 passes through the rollers, dusting with more semolina will not be necessary.
Narrow the setting by 1 notch and pass dough through, then run it through again. Continue passing the dough through the rollers, reducing the thickness by 1 setting each time until the pasta sheet is about 1mm thick (this is the third-to-last setting on many pasta rollers, but may not be the same on all). The dough should be elastic and slightly translucent but durable. Transfer dough to a large zipper-lock bag, gently folding to fit, and let rest 30 minutes.
Remove dough from bag, unfold, and cut in half. Return one dough sheet to zipper-lock bag. Spread other dough sheet on a clean work surface, and, using a 3.5-inch round cookie cutter, cut out as many dough rounds as possible. Repeat with other sheet of dough. Transfer pasta rounds to zipper-lock bag to prevent from drying and set aside. (You should have 24 rounds of pasta; if you don’t, if you don’t, re-roll dough scraps and cut more circles.)
For the Filling: While the dough is resting in Step 1, make the filling. Combine king oyster mushrooms, olive oil, sesame oil, thyme, sage, rosemary, and Spanish paprika in a medium mixing bowl and, using your hands, toss until evenly coated. Cover and let stand 20 minutes.
Heat a 12-inch cast iron or stainless-steel skillet over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add mushrooms and their marinade along with a large pinch of salt and cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until moisture has evaporated and mushrooms are deeply browned, about 12 minutes.
Stir in leeks along with a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks are translucent, about 8 minutes. Transfer mushrooms and leeks to a large bowl and stir in mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, red pepper flakes, and nutmeg. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
For the Sauce: In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil and garlic over medium heat, stirring constantly, until very lightly golden, about 30 seconds. Add rosemary and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add tomato passata, increase heat to medium-high, and bring mixture to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomato sauce has reduced and thickened into a chunky salsa, about 20 minutes. Stir in cream, bring to a gentle simmer, then turn off heat. Discard rosemary sprigs and set sauce aside.
To Form and Cook: Dust a rimmed baking sheet with a thin coating of semolina flour and set aside. Form filling mixture into roughly 2-tablespoon balls (slightly larger than a golf ball), then press into a puck shape. Transfer filling pucks to a separate baking sheet or platter.
Arrange 12 pasta rounds on a clean work surface. Set a filling puck in the center of each round. Using a finger moistened with water, very lightly wet the edge of each pasta round, then top with the remaining pasta rounds. Slowly working your way around each sorrentino, press and stretch the top dough rounds to make the edges meet with bottom dough rounds. Press down gently on each filling to remove air bubbles, then press edges to seal. Place on floured baking sheet.
Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Spoon 1/2 cup of sauce into a large casserole dish, spreading in an even layer.
Add sorrentinos to boiling water, stirring gently with a slotted spoon to prevent sticking. Cook until sorrentinos float to the surface, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Using the slotted spoon, transfer sorrentinos to casserole dish, then spoon remaining sauce on top. Bake until sauce reduces slightly and begins to brown around the edges, 10-20 minutes. Serve immediately.
Kitchen scale, rolling pin, pasta roller, 3.5-inch round cookie cutter
Make-Ahead and Storage
Sorrentinos freeze well. Lightly dust a tray with semolina or flour, add sorrentinos being sure that they are not touching one another, and freeze. Once frozen, transfer to a zipper-lock bag, pressing out air as you seal, and return to freezer.