• Tigelle are little flatbreads from Italy's Emilia-Romagna region. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The result is a warm, softly crusted bread that’s perfect filled with slices of mortadella, cheese, or even a chocolate spread.
Kylie Walker

10 Jun 2020 - 11:10 AM  UPDATED 10 Jun 2020 - 12:18 PM

--- Watch Michael Bonacini make his Modena-style flatbreads and mortadella mousse in an episode of Bonacini's Italy devoted to his favourite dishes from Emilia-Romagna, 7pm Sunday 14 June on SBS Food then on SBS On Demand ---

Italian street food, snack, lunch or even an Italo-Aussie breakfast: a tigella is a small round flatbread from the hills of Emilia-Romagna that’s almost too pretty to eat – but too delicious to resist.

Simple round pocket breads made with flour, water, salt and yeast, sometimes with milk, oil or lard, tigelle are often cooked in a special folding pan that leaves a design on each side, said to represent the sun, or possibly good fortune. The result is a warm, softly crusted bread that’s perfect filled slices of mortadella, cheese, or even Nutella.

“Tigelle comes from around two cities in particular in Italy, one is Bologna, and one is Modena. They are very close, about 50 kilometres from other. And there is competition between the two cities!” says explains  Enrico Paterni, co-owner of Rusco & Brusco, a dedicated tigelleria in Adelaide (as far as we know, the only one in Australia).

“They have different names as well. For some people 'tigelle' is not the bread, but it's the machine that the people use to use to cook them,” Paterni explains.

As Italian blogger Stefania Fregni of My Modena Dairy writes, in some areas, they are known as crescentine* or crescente (from crescere, which means to grow or rise). ‘Tigelle’ refers to the two terracotta or stone discs originally used to shape these little flatbreads, although in many areas the breads, too, are now called by the same name.

“Tigelle are a state of mind, a way of life, they are in the DNA of Emilian people,” writes Fregni, when sharing her recipe along with some background on this popular street food.

Today, instead of the old stone discs, they are usually made with a special long-handled, hinged tigelle iron, which like the old tigelle moulds leave a patten on the breads – often a variation a six-pointed star, or a six-petalled flower.

But as Michael Bonacini says when sharing his recipe in Bonacini’s Italy, you can also make these lovely fluffy flatbreads without a special iron.

Tigelle can be made in a special decorative iron, or simply pan-fried

“Tigelle are loved by one and all. You find them in cafés, restaurants. They’re either eaten as handheld snacks or as part of an antipasto platter,” says Bonacini. “If you can’t find yourself a tigelle press, then you can pan fry your risen tigelle dough in a pan on top of the stove.”

You'll still end up with lovely round gently crusted pockets - as you can see in Paola Bacchia's crescentine recipe:


Filings can vary widely, but small goods and cheese are especially popular.

“A really classic filling is one called cunza which is a sort of pesto of lardo (note, this isn’t lard, but delicious, cured pork fat, like the fat part of prosciutto), garlic and rosemary — can you imagine, on a freshly made, still warm tigella? Otherwise simply cold cuts (prosciutto, mortadella for example) and cheese. Either way, absolutely delicious when they are still warm, preferably with a glass of bubbly Lambrusco!” says Emiko Davies, the Japanese-Australian food writer who has called Italy home for the past 10 years, when we mention tigelle during a very delicious chat about another Italian regional favourite, scaccce Ragusane.

At Rusco & Brusco, Paterni and his wife Orietta Ferraro (part of the family behind the Cibo Espresso stores) have more than 40 tigelle and gnocco fritto* (a deep-fried version of tigelle) options on the menu, plus nine tigelle dolci.

The most popular tigelle? The Modenese (smoked crispy pancetta, parmesan and balsamic glaze), Romagnola (prosciutto di Parma, stracciatella and rocket) and Bufalina (buffalo mozzarella and fresh tomato).

The secrets to a good tigelle, Paterni, says are to use great ingredients in the filling, and to eat them while they are fresh.

“In the beginning, some people say, ‘at the end of the day, it’s just bread’. Yes, it is just bread – even pizza is ‘just bread’! But what is important is the ingredients you put inside. Tigelle is a bread and you have to eat it together with something very good. That’s why we continuously search for the suppliers who can sell us the best ingredients: prosciutto, sausages, salami, the best of particular cheeses. For example, we found this family from Sydney that has a business called Vannella, they are originally from Puglia and they make for us beautiful cheeses.

“The [other] secret is really the freshness of the bread because it is cooked two minutes before we serve to the tables,” says Paterni. The restaurant uses an electric tigelle machine imported from Bologna, which can cook up to 15 at once. 

At the restaurant, making tigelle is a two-day process. They follow a recipe shared with Paterni’s family when he was a child in Tuscany, by a neighbour, Concetta Bartolini, who was originally from Pavullo nel Frignana, a town in the hills near Modena. “Almost every Sunday she used to make them, and she always came to us to offer my family crescentine and tigelle,” Paterni says. “My mother learned from our neighbour and now she makes them all the time, too.”

Every night at the restaurant, the staff make a batch of tigelle dough, ready to be cooked the next day. The restaurant has made one change to the recipe: the original used lard, but to make it possible for vegetarians to enjoy, they now use a lard-free dough. Shaped into balls, the dough is ready to be cooked as needed, much like pizza is, then quickly filled and served.

“The classic way to eat the tigelle and the crescentine in Italy is to sit down at your table, you get all the tigelle and the crescentine on the side, and all the small goods on the other side. And you do the combination you want by yourself. Here, to make it easier for everyone, we cut open the tigelle, and we fill, and then we cut again. So, they come in the two little pieces, which is much easier to eat,” Paterni says. Three makes a filling lunch, he says, while at night customers often order a mixture of tigelle to share before their pizza or pasta.  

In Italy, too, pre-filled tigelle are gaining a wider following, with chains like Dispensa Emilia bringing a modern menu of tigelle to other cities including Milan and Verona.

If you go hunting for a tigelle iron, you’ll probably find yourself at the website of Costante Imports, which has been supplying Australia since 1966 with gadgets, moulds, machines and more for making everything from wine and olive oil to passata, pizza and pizzelle.  

Costante has tigelle irons (for use on gas cooktops) in several variations, including the common 9.5 cm-diameter size, and a smaller 7cm version. Most irons allow between four and seven tigelle to be cooked at once.

“They’ve been a steady seller for quite a few years,” says John Mitris, son-in-law of founder Giovanni Costante.  

And while the Costante team do enjoy them Emilia-Romagna style, cut in the middle and stuffed with a slice of mortadella or prosciutto, they also enjoy a dolci version: “We’ve made them with Nutella and mascarpone, it’s very nice, especially when it comes hot off the press!” Mitris says.

That same combination is a favourite at Rusco & Brusco – Paterni says it’s like a chocolate cheesecake inside – where there’s another popular deviation from what’s made in Italy.

On the breakfast menu, you’ll find tigelle calazione - “That means 'tigelle for breakfast'," Paterni says. "So we serve two - one serve is a couple of tigelle - with this beautiful crispy pancetta, fried egg and tomato. That doesn’t exist in Italy, it is something we wanted to create to put together two cultures, the Italian and the Australian.”

As Michael Bonacini says, the “warm crisp crust” of a tigella is a perfect match for all kinds of fillings, whether it’s the classic lardo, a take on an Aussie bacon and egg breakfast or Bonacini’s own mortadella mousse. Really, you can't go wrong - just remember to eat them while they are fresh. Somehow, we don't think that will be a problem...

* Things can get complicated when talking about tigelle, crescentine and gnocco fritto! Gnocco fritto at Rusco & Brusco are fried discs, very similar to their tigelle, while in Italy the term often refers to deep-fried square or lozenge shapes – and in Bologna, those same puffy dough pillows are also known as crescentine!

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