A primer to the most recognizable food in all of Italian cuisine.
There is famous scene in a film that is a cult classic in Italy called Un Americano a Roma in which the beloved Italian actor Alberto Sordi tries his best to eat like an American, snubbing the plate of pasta that has been left out for him in favor of the unappetizing “americana” concoction he’s made for himself. But it’s hopeless – after just a few unpleasant mouthfuls, he can resist no longer. He grabs the bowl of spaghetti and plunges his fork into it with a passion and desire that just about anyone the world over would recognize – the insatiable love for pasta. What is it about this food that makes adults lust for it beyond reason and children squeal with delight? If you ask an Italian to explain it, the question will most likely be met with a laugh, a shake of the head and a look towards the heavens: clearly, it is not something to be put into words.
Italian children begin eating pasta before they can barely chew. A baby digging into his first bowl of spaghetti is itself worthy of a film scene: maybe starting with a fork, he’ll quickly abandon it, soon diving into the bowl with his fingers – which, by the way, is how spaghetti was eaten until around the 16th century – enjoying the event with his whole being. It seems that the sight of a bowl of delicious, tangled strings – or “trii” as spaghetti is called in Sicily, deriving from the Arabic word for “string” – is as irresistible to a child as a ball of yarn is to a kitten. Pasta, in all its dozens of varieties, is a child’s delight: The amusing shapes and soothing taste soon establish it as a favorite in their repertoire of things to put in their mouths. Butterflies, wheels, tubes, little ears and little tongues, shells, and feathers – what could be more delightful to a child? But even before they have graduated to such shapes, the first food Italian children eat is pasta: usually a soupy mix with a lot of mixed vegetables, the usual spoonful of extra-virgin olive oil and parmigiano. By the time they are old enough to eat with a fork, they are already great fans of simple sauces with tomatoes. No doubt, the famous love and appreciation Italians hold for their mothers is inextricably entwined with their love for the pasta she presents to them each day as children. Besides being delicious and satisfying, pasta is a great source of energy, and children soon naturally crave it. Eating pasta becomes a daily ritual, establishing a life-long, health-sustaining habit.
For nearly two centuries, pasta has been the quintessential element in Italian cooking – and more and more, it has become an essential part of cooking all over the world. The number of pasta lovers has become enormous and very heterogeneous. Though Italy is the leading consumer of pasta, with nearly 60 pounds per capita per year, each American eats an average of 19 pounds per year. Even if no words can describe whypasta engenders the passion it does, there is no shortage of words written about how to enjoy it. Each year, hundreds of books and magazines are published on the subject of pasta and the innumerable ways to prepare it. Television everywhere is inundated with food shows discussing the subject. In the new global village, there are true pasta connoisseurs on just about every continent. Today, one can eat a stunning pasta dish in Sao Paulo, London or New York that would rival the finest restaurants in Italy.
If one could follow the scent of pasta through the millennia, it’s no exaggeration to say that the entire history of civilization would be traced. The trail would span cultures and continents ranging from Asia, the Mid-East, Europe, the Americas, and parts of Africa, and reach back at least 3,500 years. Yet, in spite of all the myriad of forms it has taken and the countless contexts in which it has appeared, today it is almost universally associated with Italy – though historically, this has not always been the case. In fact, it is only in the last century or so that many regions of northern Italy – including Veneto, Lombardy, Liguria and the Piemonte – have embraced pasta as an essential part of their cuisine. But, there are many aspects of pasta’s history that are surprising.
The early history of pasta does not begin with Italy, but rather in the Shang dynasty in China (1700-1100 BC) where some form of noodles are known to have existed – made with either wheat or rice flour. Pasta also appears to have been a feature in the diet of ancient Greek civilization, flourishing in the first millennium BC. In fact, the word lasagna comes from the Greek term “laganon,” which consisted of strips of dough made with flour and water.
But, as early as the fourth century BC, the story of pasta shifts to Italy: there is archeological evidence for the existence of pasta in the Etruscan civilization, which flourished in the regions we now call Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany. A bas-relief unearthed in an Etruscan tomb depicts tools and kitchen utensils used to roll and form pasta very similar to those still in use today. A lucky find for anthropology, but a sad blow to the legend of Marco Polo, which claims it was he who introduced Europe to pasta after his adventures in the Far East. He may have brought some unusual noodles back with him, but it was certainly not the first time Italians had ever seen such food.
But like so much else in Italy, the development of pasta as a culinary art really takes off in the Renaissance. By the 14th century, pasta was a regular part of life in Rome and Florence. As far as we know the first scholar to write extensively about pasta was the humanist known as Platina. In 1474, he wrote an important treatise, entitled “On Right Pleasure and Good Health” (De honesta volupatate et valetudine). In addition to essays on gastronomy and recipes, the treatise includes discussions on the elemental nature of food, recommended exercises for the body, and general suggestions on how to feel in harmony in life.
In later centuries, as it became available in dried forms and sold in shops, pasta grew more and more popular, until by the 19th century, it achieved a presence and stature in Italian cuisine that continues to evolve to the present day. The extraordinary variety and sophistication of pasta dishes now – from Bucatini alla amatriciana to Linguine al pesto are part of a centuries’ long evolution. Though Italians cannot claim to have invented pasta, it’s clear they took to the creation with an unparalleled joy, passion and inventiveness – developing an entire culture and cuisine around it, which is now recognized worldwide.
Pure and simple: wheat and water is what pasta is made of….durum wheat, to be more precise. Durum wheat, deriving from the Latin term tricutum durum (“durum” means “hard” in Latin), is grown in many regions of the world, including the Mediterranean countries, North America, the former Soviet Union and Argentina. In Italy, it grows mainly in the southern regions – most notably, in Puglia, which is known for producing some of the finest pasta in the world. One of the most important qualities of durum wheat is that it contains more proteins than common wheat. These proteins, especially gluten, are essential for producing high-quality pasta – that is, a pasta that will remain firm, or “al dente,” when cooked. The grinding of durum wheat grains produces a coarse flour called semolina, which is the only flour used in all Italian-made pasta. Any other kind of flour – that is, the common wheat flour that is used in many breads, desserts and other preparations – results in a pasta that becomes mushy when cooked and has much less nutritional value. In 1967, a law was passed in Italy requiring that only durum wheat be used in the making of all its dried, store-bought pasta. This guarantees a certain level of quality and nutrition for any industrially produced pasta made in Italy.
In the last 30 years, the technology in the production of pasta has grown along with the demand. If you look inside the factory of one of the many large producers of pasta in Italy – which is first in the world for quality and production – you might be surprised by the extraordinarily high-tech modernity of the process: huge, very long, spotless and nearly antiseptic spaces; enormous machinery and pasta driers; and an incredibly small number of workers compared with the thousands and thousands of kilos of pasta produced daily. The choice of top quality wheat, pure and balanced water, together with cutting-edge technology – including fully computerized systems monitoring every single step of the production – guarantee hygiene and the top-notch quality of the pasta produced. Rigorous Italian and international standard certifications are required by all major pasta companies. The result is that pasta today tastes and feels better then ever. There are also different kinds of pasta produced in Italy now, like whole wheat, multi-cereals and organic pasta that are in high demand from foreign markets. Italians are a bit conservative on this but very open to the fact that if Americans want to have whole wheat, there must be a reason. Pasta makers are very aware that what is in demand in the US today will most likely, in time, be demanded in Europe as well.
Of course, many people continue to make their own pasta at home, as it has been for generations. Most frequently, homemade dough is made with just wheat flour, water, and a pinch of salt, rolled out by hand, and then cut and shaped according to whichever form of pasta is desired. In northern Italy, a combination of varieties of wheat flours, together with eggs, water, and salt – and sometimes other ingredients, such as spinach for green lasagna – are the usual ingredients for homemade pasta. Being able to make pasta at home is a unique joy; though it demands quite a bit of work, the feeling of pride and sense of well-being it affords, as well as the caring for others it demonstrates are just some of the rewards – in addition to fantastic tasting pasta, of course.
But there is another alternative in Italy: In every major city and in the smallest of towns, there are shops called pastifici artigianali that fabricate all sorts of pasta. These small, usually family-run operations are very popular, producing a great variety of fresh pasta, with or without eggs – such as, tagliatelle, fettuccine, lasagne – as well as all kinds of filled pastas, such as tortellini and agnolotti. These shops also offer regional specialities, of course – such as, pici in Tuscany, cavatelli in Puglia, and troffie in Liguria.
An important distinction in industrially produced pasta is made between bronze cut and Teflon cut – which refers to the molds, or “dies” as they are called, used in production. When Teflon dies are used, the resulting pasta is smooth and shiny. In contrast, bronze-cut pasta is rougher and more porous, producing a more homemade quality. Bronze-cut pasta holds sauces and seasonings in a way that Teflon cuts cannot.
With over 500 different denominations for pasta in Italy, the myriad of shapes that pasta now comes in can seem overwhelming. But, basically they can be broken down into just three simple categories: long cuts, short cuts and soup cuts. Long cuts – such as spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine, etc. – go well with full-bodied, olive-oil based and/or robust sauces. Short cuts – such as, penne, rigatoni, etc. – are best suited for ragù and chunky vegetable sauces. Soup cuts – such as, ditalini or acini di pepe – are particularly small so that they can be easily scooped up with a soup spoon. But Italians are not strict on what shape of pasta should be paired with which particular sauce – though “rigatoni al pesto” or “orecchiette con panna e prosciutto” would very likely create some awkward silences. Experience and tradition are certainly highly valued in Italian kitchens, but fortunately the Italians’ attachment to custom is tempered by their playful and tolerant spirit.
Only a few basic notions are necessary to cook pasta well and to prepare simple, tasty dishes – in addition to a bit of experience and imagination, that is. But, first and foremost, the quality of the pasta is of utmost importance – using Italian-made imported pasta is really essential to ensure a delicious pasta dish. Boil it in a large pot with plenty of salted water, adding the salt just before adding the pasta. Remove the pasta from the heat and drain it at just the right moment – which is the moment just before you think you should. This method really works for ensuring your pasta is al dente. Sound tricky? With experience, you’ll soon get the feel for it.
For many pasta preparations, you should not drain the pasta entirely – instead, after very briefly tossing it in a sieve or colander, immediately transfer it to the skillet in which you have cooked the sauce. Then, ever-so-briefly gently toss the pasta and sauce together in the skillet on a medium/low flame, until the sauce and the pasta reach the right balance – taking care not to overcook.
Some final words for ensuring great pasta dishes: Use fresh ingredients whenever possible; the flavors they provide make all the difference in the taste. When needed, add cheese and olive oil, basil or parsley, afuochi spenti – that is, when the stove is off in order to preserve their fresh, unaltered flavors.
Fortunately, in the last decade or so, the misconception that pasta is a fattening food has been corrected by many nutrition experts, through their interest and research into the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. In most parts of Italy, obesity is relatively rare, though a “low-carb diet” is unheard of. Reasonable portions of pasta dishes made with lean meat, fresh vegetables or fish sauces are not fattening at all. Eating huge portions of pasta with rich sauces everyday is not recommended, of course – but even those must be enjoyed once in a while! The path of moderation and variety is recognized to be the healthiest choice in nutrition: alternating between the various kinds of pasta – whole wheat, organic durum wheat, and the various bronze-cut pastas available – and a diet that regularly varies the accompanying sauces will provide nutritional health and general well-being. Following that dictum, one could eat pasta every day of the week.
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