Why This Recipe Works

  • Resting the dough for at least 60 minutes makes it more relaxed, workable dough that’s easier to roll out.
  • Filling the sorrentinos with meaty oyster mushrooms and seasoning them with fresh sage, thyme, and rosemary mimics the traditional filling of baked ham.

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{ebea9d5847bd78db73673675e8a4786d1e11955363e2960615a0efdb904da7cb} 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 of 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.”

In Buenos Aires, people are as loyal to their choice of pasta shop as they are to their favorite football team

Restaurants operate with the same mysticism and develop signature pasta dishes that are born 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,” wrote 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.

Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

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 sortinos on 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 easily associate with a varenky 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 takes a long resting time and extra folding and rolling.

Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

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 toughness.

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 strong 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 a payoff for a dough that required so much work. In my second trial, I stayed literally: 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?

Serious Eats / Kevin Vaughn

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 the ability to take on a deep flavor and a luxurious texture that is both meaty and silky is exactly what I was looking for. Choosing the correct aromatics and spices to season the mushrooms 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 adds pork and lacks mushrooms.

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.