Pasta in Italian, means any kind of dough, so that it also means 'pastry' in English. Although in this case there would usually be a qualifying adjective, as in pasta frolla, this is not the case when the context is quite clear. When the word pasta is used on its own it usually refers to what we call in English 'pasta' - spaghetti, macaroni, etc., and it is in this sense that it is being considered here.

There are two clues to the origins of pasta, one going back to the ancient Greeks and the other to the Etruscans, and they both lead to Rome. The Etruscan clue takes the form of a carving on a pillar in a large Etruscan tomb. The carving shows all the utensils for making pasta, neatly arranged together, including a jug for the water, a knife, a rolling pin, a large board with a raised edge for keeping the water in when mixing it with the flour, a flour bag for dusting the board, a ladle for adding the water and a pastry wheel. The Greek clue lies in the word laganon, which was a broad, flat cake made of dough and cut into strips. The Romans, who succeeded the Etruscans, used the word laganum to refer to what we call lasagne, and the word survives to this day in southern Italy, where lasagne are often called lagane and a rolling pin a laganatura.

Though pasta, then generically called vermicelli, was widely known to all at the time of the Renaissance, it remained a luxury food enjoyed only by the wealthy, or by others on special occasions.


By the 17th century, when the pasta-makers banded together into guilds the better to champion their rights against the bakers, it was becoming less of a specialty, but it was only late in the 18th century that pasta really became an everyday food.

Naples was the scene of this eruption of pasta as the food of the people; along with Vesuvius it became the symbol of Naples. In 1700 there were 60 shops selling pasta in Naples, by 1785 there were 280. On most street corners a maccheronaro could be found selling macaroni from his stall.

One of the precursors of the American involvement with pasta was Thomas Jefferson who, in 1789, asked to have a "maccaroni machine" such as he had seen in Italy sent back to him in Virginia. But the real spread of pasta to the USA occurred during the period leading up to the First World War, when emigration, mainly from Naples and Sicily, was at its height. Between 1900 and 1914 alone, three million Italians emigrated.

Back in Italy between the wars, the well-established popularity of pasta suffered a setback when, in 1931, the poet Marinetti, one of the founders of the Futurist movement, issued a manifesto denouncing pasta as "the absurd Italian gastronomic religion." It survived this onslaught, but in succeeding years Naples lost its position as pasta's capital. This was because Mussolini decided to make Italy self-sufficient in wheat, so that thousands of acres of durum wheat were planted in central and northern Italy. No longer were the grain ships unloading in the Bay of Naples and soon enough pasta factories sprang up near the big cities of the north.

Up to the middle of this century, pasta was only served at lunch and even then far more often in the south than in the north.

More recently, however, it has become the most popular start to a meal. Only at formal dinner parties is it excluded, although it may still make an appearance in the form of stuffed pasta, a TIMBALLO or in a soup. A dish of pasta is now often served as the main part of a one-course meal, followed by a salad. This used to be the typical meal of the country people in the south, providing a healthy and well-balanced diet based on pasta plus a sauce consisting either of a small amount of meat, some vegetables pulses, cheese or eggs.

In Italy, pasta usually refers to dried pasta. Fresh pasta is rarely eaten and is by no means necessarily a treat. In Emilia-Romagna, homemade pasta is traditionally made with eggs and flour, and nowadays this is the recognized mixture in many homes all over northern Italy. In other regions, however, some eggs have usually been replaced by water, giving a softer, less elastic and less delicate pasta.

The normal dried pasta, without eggs, made by leading manufacturers is in no way inferior to homemade pasta. Its composition and manufacture is tightly controlled by law. Good-quality dried pasta is buff in color, with tiny black specks and a slight sheen. When properly cooked it stays firm.

Dried pasta comes in many shapes and sizes, most of which are better suited to one type of sauce than another. Generally speaking, long pasta, such as spaghetti, is best with a light sauce based on olive oil, as this allows the strands to stay slippery and separate. The thicker long shapes are dressed with heavier sauces based on cream, cheese, eggs or meat

Sauces made with vegetables or pulses are matched with medium-sized tubular pasta, while the large-sized rigatoni and PENNE are used for baked dishes.

Pasta is everyday food, yet any Italian knows that the cooking and serving of it calls for great love and care. It is cooked in a large saucepan in plenty of salted water - about 5 1/2 cups of water to every 4 oz of pasta. No oil is added. As soon as the pasta is AL DENTE - and homemade TAGLIATELLE may only take 30 seconds - it is drained, but never over-drained. This is either done through a colander with feet, or by liffing the pasta out with a long wooden fork or a special wicker strainer. Some cooking water is usually reserved for use should the finished dish seem too dry. Homemade pasta is more easily overcooked and for this reason some people add a ladleful of cold water before draining so as to stop it cooking any more. The pasta is then transferred to a heated bowl and immediately dressed with the sauce, some oil or butter; it should never be allowed to sit in the colander , or in a bowl, without any dressing. Parmesan is never added indiscriminately in Italy, as it often is elsewhere. In some dishes the pasta is drained before it is quite cooked; it is then either baked with other indredients or put into the pan in which the sauce is cooking, where - mixed with the sauce - its cooking is completed.

Pasta must not be dressed with too much sauce, nor should it be too watery. There should be about two tablespoons of well- reduced sauce per portion of pasta.

The consumption of pasta is 55 lb per person per year. For an Italian, there is no other food that so gratifies, consoles, cheers and satisfies. It is the Italian food par excellence.


Per serving - 8 servings per pound of dried pasta (as a first course)
3/4 cup or 2 oz.:
Calories: 200
Calories from fat: 10
Total fat: 2%
Carbohydrate: 14%

Gastronomy of Italy
Anna DelConte
Prentis Hall Press



Copyright © 2000,2012, All Rights Reserved

green arrowRecipes green arrow Basics - Glossary
green arrow FAQ
- Cookbooks
- Tell a friend

Special Sections
arrow Cooking Classes
Cooking classes in the U.S. and Italy.

- Gastronomy Tours
Tour Wine & Olive oil country and other regions.

arrow Links
Links to other sites of related interest.

- Sources
Where to buy special ingredients and utensils.

- Ask the Chef
If you don't find your recipe.