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The Twisted History of Pasta

While today it’s an everyday meal for the masses, pasta was once only available for Italian nobles.

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Saverio della Gatta’s early 19th-century take on a popular artistic genre, portraying the “macaroni eaters” of Naples.

During the 20th century, Americans developed a love affair with pasta. On the big screen, spaghetti played memorable roles in classic films such as the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera (1935), Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Goodfellas (1990).

Pasta became an increasingly common sight on restaurant menus in the United States, but the Italians’ love affair with pasta has a long, complex, and passionate history. The route by which spaghetti, ravioli, and tortellini became international household names has taken some surprising turns over the centuries.

Made from the flour of durum wheat, pasta takes its name from the pasty texture of the dough when it is first mixed. Different pastas have different names, many based on the different shapes the dough is molded into. Fresh pasta is often mixed, cooked, and eaten right away, whereas pasta secca is dried in order to be stored; it is often prepared later by cooking it in boiling water.

The production process is simple, but the uses the finished product are put to are dizzyingly varied. The different shapes of pasta—cut into squares, rolled into tubes, pulled into long strings, and twisted into spirals—stretch to at least 200 types, any one of which might be used in a huge array of sauces and accompaniments, all with their regional variations.

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Cottage Industry This 14th-century Italian miniature shows two stages in pasta making. The woman to the right is kneading the dough while her colleague is hanging cut strips of vermicelli—little worms—to dry on a rack. Much later, a thicker variation of vermicelli developed, today known as spaghetti.

A Pasta Tree

Pasta’s ethnic roots have been long debated. Many theories have been put forward, some notably far-fetched. An enduring myth, based on the writings of the 13th-century explorer Marco Polo, that pasta was brought to Italy from China, rose from a misinterpretation of a famous passage in Polo’s Travels. In it, Polo mentions a tree from which something like pasta was made. It was probably the sago palm, which produces a starchy food that resembles, but is not pasta. This food almost certainly reminded the Venetian traveler of the pasta of his home country. Even while Polo was away on his travels in the 1270s, there is a reference to a soldier in the northern Italian city of Genoa, who owned a basket of “macaronis.” A century before, the Muslim geographer al-Idrisi wrote of seeing pasta produced on Sicily.

Many Italian writers have argued that a tomb from the fourth century B.C. bears a relief of pasta-making equipment, suggesting the dish was being enjoyed in pre-Roman Italy. Many food historians, however, dispute this interpretation of the relief. They point out that Roman-era references to anything resembling pasta are scarce, and that the dish probably took hold in Italy as a result of extensive Mediterranean trading in the Middle Ages. From the 13th century, references to pasta dishes—macaroni, ravioli, gnocchi, vermicelli—crop up with increasing frequency across the Italian Peninsula.

Pasta’s popularity is mentioned by the 14th-century writer Boccaccio. In his collection of earthy tales, The Decameron, he recounts a mouthwatering fantasy concerning a mountain of Parmesan cheese down which pasta chefs roll macaroni and ravioli to gluttons waiting below.

In the 1390s Franco Sacchetti, another poet and writer of tales, also tells how two friends meet up to eat macaroni. They both eat from the same dish, as was the custom of the time, but one of them has more of an appetite than the other: “Noddo started to pile the macaroni together, roll it up and swallow it down. He had sent six mouthfuls down the hatch while Giovanni’s first one was still on the fork. He did not dare put it in his mouth as the food was steaming.”

What did the pasta that Noddo bolts down with such relish taste like? Throughout the Middle Ages, until the start of the 16th century, pasta dishes were markedly different from those eaten today. Not only was pasta cooked for longer—there was none of the modern-day preference for pasta al dente—it was also mixed with ingredients that would seem surprising now, often combining sweet, savory, and spicy flavors.

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Food for the Common Man Three Neapolitan beggars, or lazzaroni, eating a dish of macaroni with their hands in the middle of a street. The detail is from the oil painting “Macaroni Eaters” by Domenico Gargiulo, a 17th-century native of the city where cheap wheat and rising meat prices were turning pasta into an affordable staple.

Pasta was considered a dish for the wealthy, taking pride of place in aristocratic banquets during the Renaissance. For example, Bartolomeo Scappi, a papal chef in the middle of the 16th century, created a third course for a banquet consisting of boiled chicken accompanied with ravioli filled with a paste made of boiled pork belly, cow udders, roast pork, Parmesan cheese, fresh cheese, sugar, herbs, spices, and raisins.

Scappi’s recipe for maccheroni alla romanesca was similarly elaborate. Flour and breadcrumb dough was mixed with goat’s milk and egg yolk and flattened into a sheet, which was then cut into thin strips with a roller cutter (bussolo), to make the noodles. After being left to dry, the macaroni was boiled for half an hour, strained and covered with grated cheese, slices of butter, sugar, cinnamon and pieces of provatura, a Roman variant of mozzarella cheese. Finally, the dish baked in the oven for half an hour with a little rose water so the cheese would melt, while the macaroni was imbued with the flavor of the spices. It is no surprise that another 16th-century author, Giulio Cesare Croce, put macaroni on his list of “fattening dishes.”

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Pasta vendors in 1880s Naples sell vermicelli in industrial quantities in this 19th-century hand-colored woodcut.

Food of Beggars and Kings

Pasta, by the late 17th century in Naples, was becoming the main staple of the common diet. Neapolitans had been nicknamed leaf-eaters (mangiafoglia) in the 1500s. From the 1700s they started to be called macaroni-eaters (mangiamaccheroni) instead. Several explanations have been put forward for this. One is a deterioration in the common people’s standard of living, which significantly limited their access to meat, while the large landowners in the Kingdom of Naples or Sicily sold wheat relatively cheaply. Religious restrictions also had an influence on the changing diet: Pasta was an ideal food for days when eating meat was forbidden. But perhaps the main reason for pasta’s dramatic spread was that, from the 17th century, industrial pasta production was developed with the use of machines such as the torchio, a mechanical press to make noodles or vermicelli.

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Macaroni Muncher 17th-century plate from southern Italy
Pasta was cooked for longer, with none of the modern-day preference for pasta al dente.

In Naples pasta became identified with beggars, or lazzaroni. “When a lazzarone has gotten four or five coins together to eat some macaroni that day, he ceases to care about tomorrow and stops working,” a traveler said. That did not prevent pasta from conquering the palates of the upper classes. King Ferdinand IV of Naples devoured macaroni with gusto: “He picked them up with his fingers, twisting and pulling them, and voraciously stuffed them in his mouth, spurning the use of a knife, fork or spoon.”

Several things that have changed drastically over time are the flavorings added to pasta. Sweetness has been replaced by savory, sugar swapped out for vegetables, which helped make pasta a nutritionally complete dish. Then, at the beginning of the 19th century, tomatoes were added. For a long time Italians considered them to be too exotic. In fact, it is not until 1844 that the first recipe appears for the most common pasta dish today: spaghetti in tomato sauce.