Last Updated on November 23, 2023 by Laura Teso
One thing is sure: Italian pasta [PAH -stah] was not born yesterday. Primordial forms of pasta were present in various parts of Europe and Asia since ancient times. To be more precise, already in the Neolithic Age (about 8000 BC) man began to grow cereals and soon learned to grind them, mix them with water and cook them. It acquired a particularly important position in Italy and in China where it developed separately, producing similar foods but with different materials and techniques.
Pasta – A little bit of history
The first two kinds of pasta in Italy were laganon (hence lasagna) in the south, and makaria (hence maccheroni) in the centre. In an Etruscan tomb (IX – X BC) in Cerveteri archaeologists found some representations of tools still in use to produce homemade pasta in Italy (pastry board, rolling pin and cutter).
The widespread belief of Marco Polo introducing pasta in Italy after his travel to China in 1295 is false. This myth was born in the United States in 1938 because of a magazine article and a popular (but not so truthful) film with Gary Cooper. Pasta was already known in Italy before Marco Polo. Plus Marco Polo was a guest of the Mongolian (and not Chinese) dynasty and the Mongols did not eat pasta. The only Chinese custom that Polo describes is the use of bread tree, from which the Chinese extracted edible masses. Marco Polo says that these masses resembled a layer of lagana, proving so that he already knew pasta before leaving.
Only around 1051 Italians started to use the generic Latin word pasta, meaning ”flour mixed with water”. It is made made of durum wheat flour (but also other cereals or grains) mixed with water or eggs and formed in various shapes. By the term pasta we normally define also a first course with pasta as main ingredient, accompanied by a sauce.
Among the first written testimonies:
- The 1221 chronic by Friar Salinbene da Parma in which the author describes a chubby friar, Giovanni da Ravenna: “I never saw anybody eating so willingly of lasagna with cheese”
- A 1230 letter to the Pope by poet and philosopher Jacopone Da Todi in which he describes the ”maccaroni” as if they were an object of sublime pleasure.
The most important innovation of the Middle Ages was the invention of a new method of cooking: The boiling system replaced the oven cooking. At the same time Italians invented new formats of pasta:
- penne, rigatoni and bucatini in the centre-south of the country
- stuffed kinds of pasta like tortelli, ravioli and agnolotti plus fresh egg pasta (tagliatelle, bigoli) in the north.
The crucial (due to its long conservation) invention of dry pasta is historically attributed to the inhabitants of Sicily, in need of supplies to sell to Saracen and Berber merchants.
Also in the Middle Ages the first Italian pasta professional workshops were opened.
In 1300 the “Liber de coquina” (medieval cookbook) suggest to eat pasta using a “punctorio ligneo” (pointed wooden tool, ancestor of the forchetta, the fork) while in the rest of Europe people still ate using hands until 1700. When pasta first arrived in Europe, only by nobility who had greater contact with Italy (Spain, French and Austria) ate it. They considered it an elite food, while in Italy it was the lower classes daily food.
Cheese and tomato
The combination with grated cheese is a classic (whether it is grana, parmigiano or pecorino, depending on the areas). In Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini (1816) Figaro tells to the Count that he is very lucky. To emphasize this luck, he says “sui maccheroni il cacio v’è cascato”. This means: you’re really lucky, on your macaroni the cheese fell. The great composer Gioachino Rossini defined himself in fact “third class pianist but first gourmet of the universe”. He loved maccheroni so much that in 1859 he signed a letter (complaining about the delay of a delivery) as “Gioacchino Rossini without Maccheroni“.
Only in the early 1600s pasta met “her soulmate”, the tomato imported from America.
In that very century maccheroni gave their name to a literary genre in vernacular Italian imitating Latin, called Latino Maccheronico. The term “maccheronico” defines a badly spoken language, half true and half invented. We say for example: “Lui parla in inglese maccheronico”, “He speaks broken English”.
With the start of mass emigration, this wonderful food became a denigrating way to call Italians: macaroni, pastar, Spaghettifresser, Spaghettix.
In 1930, the futurist writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti accused pasta to kill the virile and warlike soul of Italians. He even proposed to abolish it. The question was, however, resolved quickly when he was photographed in Milan while eating a dish of spaghetti. Consequently people started mocking him with this lines:
Marinetti dice Basta! Marinetti says stop
Messa al bando sia la pasta. Outlawed be the pasta.
Poi si scopre Marinetti Then it turns out that Marinetti
che divora gli spaghetti. is divouring the spaghetti
Among the countless Italian movies in which we can see people eating pasta, I am (as many Italians) particularly fond of the spaghetti devoured by Totò in Miseria e Nobiltà. When we watched it together, my father laughed but he always said, moved: “I remember being that poor”
Another famous scene is in the movie An American in Rome. Alberto Sordi pronounce the famous phrase:
“Maccarone, m’hai provocato e io ti distruggo adesso, maccarone. Io me te magno” (Maccarone, you provoked me and now I destroy you, maccarone, I eat you!)
Did you know that… On April Fool’s Day 1957, the BBC broadcast on television a documentary about the spring collection of spaghetti. The documentary narrator said that spaghetti grew on trees in the border between Italy and Switzerland.
Referring to the unification of Italy, sometimes politically discussed, writer and journalist Cesare Marchi, wrote:
“Ours is a collection rather than a population. But when lunch hour strikes, sitting in front of a spaghetti dish, the Peninsula inhabitants recognize themselves as Italian. Not even the military service, not even universal suffrage (not to mention the tax duty) have an equal unifying power. The unity of Italy, dreamed by the fathers of the Risorgimento, is now called pasta”