Pasta fashion has evolved and changed throughout centuries of wars, changes and cultural interactions. Italy’s history is as rich, colorful and fascinating as the amazing and pasta shapes that were prepared there.
More than 350 types of pasta
Italy has more than 350 different: thick, thin, short, long, hollow, smooth, ridged and wavy, the Italians have created a shape of pasta that works with every sauce on the face of the earth.
When your average Italian nonna is planning a meal, the decision of which size or type of pasta to cook is almost totally dependent on the sauce that it is served with. It is no coincidence that Carbonara is served with spaghetti or that Ravioli tasted great with butter and sage. Sauces in Italy vary from region to region.
You will find tomato sauces are most common in Southern Italy where they are prepared in a spicier manner by adding garlic and hot spices. In Central Italy tomato sauces are also popular, but also there are also egg sauce variations. In Northern Italy creamy, cheese sauces are more popular.
Centuries of strict cooking traditions, painstakingly handed down from one generation to the next, have installed the importance of matching pasta the correct to the most appropriate sauce. Some pasta is formed into complex shapes, that are designed to grab sauces. Penne for example, have ridges or indents on the surface to hold the sauce.
What is pasta?
Made from the flour of durum wheat, the word pasta means ‘paste’ in Italy. This is in reference to the dough that the pasta shapes are made out of. Many of the pasta shapes are named after the figures that the dough is molded into.
Fresh pasta is often mixed, cooked, and eaten right away, whereas the alternative is dried in order to be stored and prepared later, by cooking it in boiling water.
Fresh pasta can be made with slightly different ingredients than the dried variety. Northern Italians prefer all-purpose flour and eggs whereas the southern regions prefer to use semolina and water.
Where did pasta originate
The history of pasta in Italy is as long and rich as the country’s history itself. Pasta was possibly eaten as far back as the 4th century B.C; as Etruscan tomb reliefs seem to indicate. The first written attestation of pasta was during the middle ages, in 1154. Pasta arrived in Italy, not from Marco Polo, but instead via the ports of Sicily in the middle ages. Since the 9th century, Sicily was an Arabic colony. The Sicilians welcomed the imported tastes of their colonizers, including dried pasta. The Arabs valued pasta due to the fact it was easy to carry and preserve, hence perfect for long sea trips and warfare.
The modern word “macaroni” stems from the Sicilian expression for kneading dough with vigor. Early pasta making was often an arduous, day-long activity. From the ports of Sicily, dried pasta made its way up to those of Naples and Genoa, as well as the rest of Europe.
During the Middle Ages pasta shops emerged throughout southern Italy in the regions that had been especially influenced by Arabic culture. By the middle of the thirteenth century, Naples, Genoa and Salerno all had pasta making factories supplying the increased demand. In the fourteenth century, Puglia and Tuscany followed suite. It was at this time the first Italian pasta laws were established, controlled and regulated by the Pope himself.
Up until the 17th century, pasta was a dish for the wealthy classes, taking pride of place in aristocratic banquets. Popular dishes included pappardelle, potato gnocchi, maccheroni and tagliatelle. Pasta spread to the masses when industrial production was made possible thanks to mechanical press machines. Up until then, the people of Naples had been known collectively as mangia foglie (leaf eaters), because they ate mainly vegetables. When pasta became the main principal dish, Neapolitans became the mangia maccheroni (pasta eaters) instead.
It is said that the pairing of pasta and tomatoes was first harmonized by Sicilan ship dockers, who boiled pasta (probably spaghetti or maccheroni), drained it and added diced tomatoes on top before they ate a meal.
After tomatoes were discovered in the New World, it took until the middle of the 19th century for the fruit to be considered edible. As the tomato plant is a member of the nightshade family, wary Italians were understandably doubtful about whether this strange fruit was fit for human consumption.
Neapolitans caught on to the tomato trend quickly though – and soon they were growing tomatoes to make pummarola. Within only a hundred years, vermicelli with pummarola was the staple dish for many Southern Italians.
Pasta is big business for Italians
Italy produces around 4 million tons of pasta per year and (unsurprisingly) is the country with the highest consumption per capita in the world. The average Italian eats more than 25 pounds of pasta per year. They are closely followed by the Germans, French, British, Americans and the Japanese, who alone purchase 61% of all Italian food exports, a whopping 995 million euro worth each year.