Pasta is an ancient food—not so ancient that it predates written records, but no one was taking notes when this popular food first came onto the scene. Scholars credit the Chinese with making pasta from rice flour as early as 1700 B.C.E. The pasta-centric Italians believe pasta dates back to the ancient Etruscans, who inhabited the Etruria region of Italy (the central western portion of Italy, what now are Tuscany, Latium and Umbria) from the Iron Age into Roman times (from the 11th century B.C.E. to the 1st century B.C.E.). Around 400 B.C.E., they began to prepare a lasagna-type noodle made of spelt. The Romans who followed made lagane, a kind of lasagna, from a dough of water and flour. However, both the Etruscans and the Romans baked their noodles in an oven, so boiled pasta had yet to be born in Italy. Credit for the invention of boiled pasta is given to the Arabs. Traders from Arabia packed dried pasta on long journeys over the famed “Silk Road” to China. They carried it to Sicily during the Arab invasions of the 8th century. The dried noodle-like product they brought with them could easily be reconstituted into a hot, nutritious meal. This is most likely the origin of the dried pasta that began to be produced in great quantities in Palermo at this time. The word “macarone” derives from the Sicilian term for making dough forcefully; early pasta-making was a labor-intensive, day-long process. How the pasta was eaten is not known, but many old Sicilian pasta recipes still include other Arab culinary introductions such as raisins and cinnamon. The oldest macaroni recipes in existence are from Sicily and still part of today’s cuisine: macaroni with eggplant (eggplant was introduced by the Arabs in Sicily around the year 1000, via India) and macaroni with sardines. What the Italians most likely did add is sauced pasta.
Documents from the 12th century describe something like a factory in the area of Palermo, that exported dry pasta to regions of southern Italy. By the 1300s dried pasta had spread to Genoa. Genovese sailors, among the most active traders in the Mediterranean, carried the pasta north from Sicily, and from the port of Genoa it traveled to other areas, including Provence and London. Genoa became a trader, and then a producer, of dry pasta. Pasta was very popular for its nutrition and its shelf life, and was ideal for long ocean voyages.
What about the belief that the great Venetian explorer, Marco Polo, introduced pasta to Italy from China? There is much historic record to show otherwise. We know from this and other written records that pasta was in Italy before Marco Polo’s return. Dry pasta was unknown to the Chinese. What Polo did bring back in 1295 was rice flour pasta, the perishable, soft kind from which Chinese dumplings had been made since 1,700 B.C.E., and the concept of stuffed pasta. Today the “dumpling” style of pasta is manifested in ravioli, gnocchi and other preparations using regular wheat flour, eggs and water. It is referred to as “dumpling”-style or soft pasta, even when it is dried hard.
By the 1600s, in an industrial revolution in Naples, a process was invented to extrude the dough through a mechanical die, allowing for the large-scale, efficient production of pasta. This allowed the pasta to have a long shelf life, and brought Naples out of a severe economic depression. Imports of meat and fresh produce had become expensive, but flour was available, and pasta had become more affordable after the invention of the mechanical press. Dry pasta quickly became the people’s food, to the point that Neapolitans were commonly called mangia-maccheroni (macaroni-eaters). Southern Italy had hundreds of artisan pasta makers. Although pasta became very popular, dry pasta was the food of the man in the street. Since its introduction, it was eaten using the hands (remember its origins as a soldier’s field provision). It was sold as street food by vendors called maccaronaros who cooked it over a charcoal-stoked fire; it was eaten on the spot with bare hands, plain or sprinkled with grated sheep or goat cheese, no sauce. The wealthy, who did not eat with their hands, ate fresh pasta stuffed and seasoned with cheeses and meats.
In 1824 in northern Italy, close to Genoa, the first industrial pasta factory was established by the Agnese family. In November 1827, Giulia Buitoni, a widowed mother of five children, started another pasta factory nearby. The next big advancement in Pasta History ocurred about this time, with the marriage of pasta and tomatoes. Remember the first documented tomato sauce recipe is from 1839.
The huge wave of Italian immigration that began toward the end of the 19th century was ultimately responsible for pasta becoming an American staple. From 1880 to 1921, more than five million Italians immigrated to America, three quarters of them from the regions south of Rome. What became Italian-American cuisine was different from the old country cuisines for different reasons. There were fewer varieties of fruit, vegetables and cheeses available than in Italy, and much more meat which was cheap and plentiful in America. Spaghetti and meatballs is a dish unknown in Italy but it is an staple in italian-american food.
The Great Depression of the 1930s made inexpensive food like spaghetti a necessity. Spaghetti and meatballs began to appear regularly on millions of American tables. Today pasta is a completely versatile food: from school cafeteria to the most exclusive restaurant, from main course to side to dessert, it fills any need asked of it. Today durum wheat is a huge crop, producing more than 100 million bushels annually, largely in North Dakota. According to the National Pasta Association, America manufactures more pasta than any other country in the world—more than five billion pounds a year.
Chef Felix Piedra