To refer to pasta as the national dish of Italy would simply fail to render justice to the nation’s obsession with the stuff. Indeed, its significance is none the more evident than in Italy’s founding father , Guiseppe Garibaldi’s exclamation in 1860 that: “it will be macceroni, I swear to you, that will unite Italy!”
Even today, most Italians wouldn’t go without at least one bowl of pasta as part of their daily diet. While the average European consumes less than 2kg of pasta, the archetypal Italian munches about 30kg annually! Admittedly, eating pasta in Italy is an entirely different experience to the sodden bowl of overcooked mush served in Italian joints in other parts of the world. Whether you are sitting in a cheap and cheery trattoria in a quiet street off the bustling St Mark’s square in Venice, or in the formal dining room of one of Rome’s plush five-star hotels, you will be guaranteed a top-notch meal should you order the local pasta dish.
Some might well say that pasta is merely a vehicle to support the star of the show – a well-flavored sauce. This is indeed a grave misconception. Any Italian would readily assure you that pasta is as crucial to the success of the finished dish as the sauce which accompanies it.
There are literally hundreds of different varieties of pasta, each one created to suit a particular type of sauce. Long, thin noodle-like strands, such as spaghetti or linguine, are suited to smooth, tomato-based sauce which cling onto their delicately textured surface. Alternatively, more intricate shapes such as fusili or conchiglie with their convoluted inner chambers make ideal partners to chunky meat or vegetable sauces. But it is about more than simple logistics – the choice of pasta actually contributes to the overall taste and flavor of the dish.
There are two main categories of pasta: flour-and-water-based pasta, and flour-and-egg pasta. The former comprises the vast majority of the dried pastas that line supermarket shelves (although you can buy dried egg pasta ribbons). It is made from a very strong variety of wheat known as durum (meaning “hard” in Latin). The strength of the wheat indicates a high gluten content which produces the tough and elastic dough necessary to withstand the arduous commercial shaping and drying process. The gluten also allows the pasta to maintain its shape after it has been cooked. Wheat is first ground to coarse, angular grains called semolina which is then mixed with water to form a stiff dough. Because of its robust and sturdy characteristics, flour-and-water pasta marries well with chunky, olive oil-based sauces and spicy sauces.
Egg pasta or pasta all’uovo is often referred to as fresh or homemade pasta. It is mostly found as ribbons of a variety of widths, the most popular being fettuccine and the wider tagliatelle. Egg pasta is made from a softer and more refined durum wheat flour known as OO flour. Unlike its dried relatives, fresh egg pasta is delicate, porous and leathery in texture. Consequently, it is best served with rich cream or buttery sauces which it absorbs well. Unfortunately, most of the fresh pasta stocked in supermarkets is of such poor quality and water-logged to add weight, that you are better off buying dried egg pasta, or much better yet, making your own. Even if you are a novice, you will end up with a far superior product and of course, the gratification of having made your own pasta from scratch!
The origins of pasta have long been a contentious issue. While the myth that Marco Polo brought it back from his adventures in China in 1295 remains strong among romantic gastronomes, it has more or less been debunked in academic circles. It is most likely that pasta was first introduced into the southern Italian region of Sicily by Arab invaders. Evidence that dry pasta-like noodles were an Eastern staple was found on tablets in Jerusalem dating from the 5th century. It was not until the 14th century however, that dried pasta came into its own. Easy to store and transport, and with a long shelf life, it was the ideal food for travelers to take aboard their ships as they set out to explore the New World.
It wasn’t until 1891 that Italy, as we know it today, came into being. Prior to this, it was a collection of autonomous states, each one rich with its own customs and culinary traditions. But despite Italy’s unification, regional differences continue to thrive today. In the north, the local prefer fresh egg pasta cut into flat noodles with rich sauces cooked with butter and cream, whereas in the south, the abundant supplies of tomatoes, herbs and anchovies are reflected in the traditional sauces and the preference is towards tubular and long varieties of pasta, such as penne and spaghetti.
Each region also has its characteristic pasta dishes. Venice, in the north, has its spaghetti al nero di sepia made from the viscous black ink of squid served with seafood sauce, and Bologna, its most celebrated export, ragu alla Bolognese – a slow-cooked meat sauce.
Curiously, while the legendary spaghetti Bolognese has gained cult status across the globe, native Italians scoff at the notion of accompanying these slippery noodles with a dense meat sauce, as it would simply slide of the stands into a pool at the bootom of the bowl. Instead, they serve it with wide egg pasta ribbons or short, tubular-shaped macaroni.
In the central regions, the Tuscans enjoy pici, a sort of irregular homemade spaghetti served with meat sauces while in Abruzzo the locals are especially keen on maccheroni alla chittarra, so called because the egg pasta is cut on a sort of wooden frame with strings that is similar to a guitar. In the south, Apulia is renowned for its orecchieite pasta, shaped like little ears, which is combined with cime di rapa (turnip greens) or meatballs. Sicily has its pasta alla Norma, a dish of aubergines and tomato, dedicated to the composer Bellini, and Calabria, its baked pastas such as sagne chine, in which layers of pasta are stuffed with meatballs, artichokes, hard-boiled eggs, and mozzarella or Provola cheese.