When you think of Italy, you think of pasta. This delicious dish is synonymous with Italian cuisine, and while it’s loved all over the world, it’s the Italians who have a true love affair with pasta. The long and complex history of pasta in Italy dates back centuries, beyond the Middle Ages. So how exactly did the pasta obsession come about? How did this humble carb become the crown jewel of Italian cuisine? Let’s dive in!
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The controversial history of pasta in Italy
The origin of pasta in Italy is a polarising subject! A common myth is that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China in the 13th century. That’s been debunked as pasta existed in Italy long before Marco Polo’s time – but the exact origins of pasta are unknown. Some say pasta started with the Etruscans, a pre-Roman civilisation in central Italy, since a supposed pasta-making tool was found in an Etruscan tomb.
This is a shaky theory, however, and it’s more likely that pasta was introduced by Arab traders in Sicily throughout the 8th and 9th centuries. The dried strands of durum wheat and water were ideal for long voyages, and durum wheat thrives in Sicily’s warm climate. In fact, Italy is still one of the biggest producers of durum wheat, used to make semolina flour.
While there’s a lot about the origins of pasta we don’t know, we are certain that pasta was enjoyed in Italy from the Medieval period onwards. The beloved pasta is mentioned many times in literature and depicted in numerous artworks, such as Boccaccio’s 14th-century The Decameron, which shows pasta chefs making ravioli and macaroni on a hill of melting Parmesan cheese and rolling it down to a group of hungry people. Sounds like heaven to us!
How did Italians eat pasta?
As pasta spread throughout Italy, it began to be accessible to everyone, from rich nobles to poorer farmers. While pasta was a great source of energy for the poor, the wealthy jazzed it up with all kinds of ingredients like cow udders, pork belly, and raisins. Many Sicilian pasta recipes still include classic Middle Eastern ingredients like raisins and cinnamon. This likely comes from the original medieval dishes! By the 17th century, Neapolitans were known as “mangiamaccheroni” (macaroni eaters) because pasta was such an essential, daily food in Naples.
Early pasta making was an intensive all-day process. The word “macaroni” actually comes from the Sicilian term for kneading dough with a lot of energy.
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Tomatoes and pasta – the perfect match
As pasta snowballed in popularity, so did the innovations of different cooking styles, pasta shapes, and sauce pairings. New pasta machines called ‘torchio’ were invented and pasta became easier to make… And this humble carb became truly ingrained in Italian cuisine and life.
By the 19th century, pasta’s most iconic sidekick – tomatoes – came on the scene. The use of tomato sauce with pasta was first recorded in 1790 in the L’Apicio Moderno cookbook by Francesco Leonardi. However, tomatoes didn’t really take off until the mid-19th century, because they were originally thought to be poisonous. Luckily for us, this rumour was quickly dispelled and tomatoes took their rightful place in pasta’s history.
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Pasta in Italy today
Today pasta is an obsession all over the world and you can find it in just about any supermarket. But if you want to eat the real deal, you’ve got to head to Italy. Here, pasta making is an art form, from the dried stuff (pasta secca) to the fresh (pasta fresca). The locals have all kinds of tricks and techniques, like drying the pasta longer, often up to 50 hours, for better quality. They also use moulds to make ridges along the pasta so they can absorb sauces better.
There are also around 300 different shapes of pasta in Italy, ranging from penne and spaghetti to farfalle to racchette (tennis rackets)! Whatever your style, you know you’re getting something special when you indulge in a delicious bowl of pasta in Italy.
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Italians eat a whopping 1.4 million tonnes of pasta a year – around 23kg of pasta per person per year. That’s compared to Americans who consume around 9kg per person. With such a deep love of pasta, you can understand why they are the master pasta makers!
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Do you know any fun facts about the history of pasta? Let us know in the comments below!