The first non-Chinese dumpling I fell for was a microwaveable cup of Chef Boyardee mini ravioli. Back when Italian food to me was Domino’s pizza (or my grandma’s re-creation of it using ketchup), these little bundles weren’t like anything I’d ever eaten. I craved the gummy wrappers, tinny tomato sauce, and inscrutable filling.

I wonder if any Italian-American children had a similar experience, growing up around their version of dumplings and then finding a mimic from another part of the world in a supermarket aisle. And were those products an alluring purchase for parents like mine because of the sad reality of their—and my—culinary traditions?

Because making dumplings from scratch can be a pain in the ass.

Ty Leon is the executive chef and co-owner of Restaurant Olivia, a pasta-centric Italian concept that opened three and a half years ago in the Washington Park neighborhood. He says that he puts stuffed pastas (read: Italian dumplings) on his menu to set his eatery apart from other spots—even those who otherwise make pasta in-house. Because, again, making dumplings can be a pain in the ass.

“It takes about three times longer to make a tortellini than to use the [pasta] machine to extrude spaghetti,” Leon says. 

Restaurant Olivia. Photo by Lucy Beaugard

The pain-staking process starts with the dough. Restaurant Olivia makes a “rav” dough separately from what is used to produce tagliatelle, gemelli, spaghetti, and other pasta shapes. While the recipes use essentially the same ingredients—flour, eggs, olive oil, and salt—the dough for stuffed pastas must be the slightest bit wetter for easier folding. Emily Boyd, the restaurant’s dedicated pasta chef, usually achieves that level of hydration with the addition of an extra egg yolk, but that one change requires her to craft a different batch of dough.

In general, though, the rav dough must be kept as dry as possible because any excess liquid in the wrapper will create unsightly cracks once the pastas are stuffed and frozen for evening service, Leon says. Regardless of how they’re kept, the dumplings only last for a day until the wrapper absorbs too much water from the filling.

Hydration isn’t the only finicky part of the filled pastas, of course. Individually cutting and folding each dumpling necessitates even more labor from Boyd, making it extra impressive that Restaurant Olivia sometimes has four or more different shapes (agnolotti, ravioli, cappelletti, etc.) on the menu at the same time. But for Leon, it’s a worthwhile usage of resources.

The labor issues apply to Chinese dumplings, too—perhaps even more so. When we spent a week with Yuan Wonton’s Penelope Wong, we learned that it takes two full workdays with two helpers to fold the 4,000 dumplings required for just one day of service. And why might Chinese dumplings be more laborious than Italian ones? It’s because Chinese dumpling dough is often made from just flour and water and is far wetter than pasta dough, meaning individual wrapper portions have to be torn off and rolled out by hand. That process, plus the intricate folding often required for Chinese dumpling shapes, is likely why some restaurants use pre-made wrappers or rely entirely on factory-made xiaolongbao, wontons, and other varieties.

I wax poetic about my family’s homemade dumplings but usually don’t mention all of the times when our freezer was stocked with only store-bought options. It’s unfeasible for many households—regardless of ethnic background—to pay the opportunity cost and fuss with these individual bites. So for Chinese restaurants, where the menus are often vast, what choice do they have? There are noodles to pull, stir-fries to toss, and rice to steam.

And to not put dumplings on the menu? That’s not even an option unless you want to lose customers who love them.

That’s why, unless a Chinese restaurant is billed as a dumpling house, I don’t need the dumplings on the menu to be made in house to appreciate them. Establishments that do craft them from scratch, like Restaurant Olivia, stand out. But expecting that from all restaurants is a recipe for dissatisfaction. Labor and time are valuable resources, and anyone choosing to eat out to avoid cooking at home can relate.

That’s why it’s ever more important to celebrate dumplings that are homemade. Here, three delicious Italian versions that are a big step up from Chef Boyardee.

3 Italian Dumplings to Try in Denver

Steak Agnolotti from Restaurant Olivia

While not on the menu at Olivia right now, these parcels filled with New York strip and a cheesy Mornay sauce might come back in the future. If so, they’re a must order for the perfect texture of the wrapper alone. Expect a slightly al dente bite that pairs well with the thin, but flavorful jus. “I like to call us a pasta restaurant, not a filling restaurant,” Leon says.

Ravioli di Pesce from Lo Stella Ristorante

Lo Stella Ristorante’s ravioli. Photo by Ethan Pan

Nine years ago, Alessandro Polo established the Denver offshoot of his family’s 175-year-old, Portofino-based Lo Stella Ristorante. While this location in the Golden Triangle is quite a ways away from Italy, its unfussy fare still seems to carry the same spirit. This platter of fish-stuffed ravioli is served in a creamy sauce dotted with small shrimp, making for a hearty, but not heavy seafood entrée. Make sure to order a bread basket to swipe up any remnants.

Mushroom Ravioli from Coohills

Mushroom ravioli from Coohills. Photo by Ethan Pan

Tom and Diane Coohill’s LoDo eatery leans much more French than Italian on its menu, so it’s not surprising that this specialty puts a bit of a twist on the ravioli tradition. The 12-year-old institution fills thin sheets of pasta dough with duxelles, a French preparation of minced mushrooms, onions, and herbs. A sauce infused with robust Taleggio cheese and extra mushrooms on top boost the umami in this fungus-packed dish.

Ethan Pan
Ethan Pan
Ethan Pan is 5280’s associate food editor, writing and editing for the print magazine and Follow his dining/cooking Instagram @ethans_pan.