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Pass the pasta, pretty please


With more than 350 varieties, who can eat just one?

By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo

Italians love their pasta. It is a staple of their daily lives, like bread and wine. For centuries historians believed that pasta was brought back to Italy from China by Marco Polo. The famous Venetian, merchant, explorer, and writer, who traveled through Asia along the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295, returned to Italy with an abundance of unknown products. The wealthy were willing to pay a great deal of money for a variety of new spices such as cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, mace, peppercorns, fennel seed and ginger. He also came back with noodles which may have promoted the belief that pasta developed from this discovery. Various written records indicate pasta was eaten in Italy long before Marco Polo turned up with his traveler’s tales. In 1154, the Arab geographer Edrisi described “a food of flour in the shape of threads” in what is now present-day Palermo in Sicily. It is also known that soldiers in the 13th century carried pasta as part of their food rations which became the pasta that Italy is known for today.

Historians may disagree with facts that prove pasta has been here since “classical” times; the Greeks called it “làganon” and the Etruscans “makar˜nia” from which the modern Italian word maccheroni derives. Today’s general term “pasta” comes from the Latin “pasta “which means to mix flour and seasonings with something wet. Historically both the Chinese and southern Europeans were simultaneously creating and perfecting their “pastas” but with entirely different techniques and styles.

One main difference that occurred over the years is the way pastas evolved in the two culinary cultures. The Chinese have kept their pastas simple. Their pastas are spaghetti-type strands found in several dishes such as lo mein and wonton skins or wonton wrappers, which are thin sheets of dough made from flour, egg, and water.

Conversely, if you look at the evolution of pastas in Italy, they have developed into a variety of shapes, cuts and sizes with certain cuts specifically designed to pair with specific sauces or soups. For example, linguini are usually associated with seafood sauce or fettuccine with Alfredo sauce. There are so many legends, myths, and old wives’ tales as to how these shapes, sizes and cuts came about that it is difficult to know which is factual.

Let us take lasagna, which many of us associate with Italy. Skeptics would argue that lasagna originated in Greece or England. However, most reports seem to indicate that this dish, as we now know it, made its first appearance in the Italian city of Naples during the Middle Ages. Other experts agree that lasagna originated in Naples, but as far back as 35 B.C. when the Roman poet Orazio wrote, “inde domum me as porri et ciceris refero laganique catinum,” “I’m returning home to my bowl of leeks, chickpeas, and lasagne.” However, it is thought that lasagne at the time were made with flour and water and were very very thin. It is a short evolu-tionary step from that to full lasagna sheets.

Finally, in the 1800s, pasta was formed into numerous cuts by forcing it to flow through a shaped opening in a bronze die. Extruded material emerged as an elongated piece with the same profile as the die opening. Shapes such as spaghetti, fusilli, and rigatoni along with other shaped pastas are considered by Italians as a more “recent” development in the evolution of pasta.
Various kinds of pasta come from very distinct regions of Italy. Consequently, unlike here in the U.S. where spaghetti and macaroni products are “Italian,” in each region of Italy certain cuts may or may not be stocked on store shelves.

In Abruzzo spaghetti alla chitarra is spag-hetti but square shaped instead of cylindrical. Chitarra means “guitar” in Italian and this pasta is so named because it is made by pushing the dough through fine strings, like those of a guitar. This pasta is best served with smooth cream or oil-based sauces.

Orecchiette, or “little ears,” comes from Puglia in southeastern Italy. Orecchiette is often served with broccoli rabe, chili, and garlic because broccoli rabe is grown in Puglia.

Ziti is Sicily’s version of penne. Ziti often has ridges, making it great for thick, meaty sauces. Ziti
lends itself well to pasta bakes because of its sturdy structure and hollow center. Each bite of baked
ziti oozes with melted cheese and sauce.

In the north of Italy, farfalle, otherwise known as “bowties” in the United States, are a standard
pasta. They are a popular cut of the northwest region of Lombardy. The name of Lombardy’s pasta comes from the word “farfalla,” which means butterfly. The simple, yet fun-shaped pasta is a favorite of American kids and is often dyed assorted colors with vegetables such as beets, carrots, and spinach. Bowties should be paired with smooth sauces because there are no crevices to hold any meats or vegetables like in a ragù.

Gigli is a pasta in the cute shape of the lily flower, hence the name gigli or lily. The Gigli is popular in Tuscany in central Italy. The ruffled edges make the pasta best for thick, creamy sauces.

It is estimated that there are more than 350 diverse types of pasta. This is partly because some cuts may have a different name in various regions due to the diverse dialects. Pasta names often end in the masculine plural suffixes of -ini, -elli, -illi, -etti or the feminine plurals -ine, -elle. These endings express the sense of “little”; or if ending with -oni, -one, the sense of large. In Italian, all pasta type names are plural. Pasta ending in “ini” may be a smaller version of a particular shape, and pasta ending in “oni” the larger one. For example, spaghettini means smallest, spaghetti refers to regular and spaghettoni to the largest cut.

Whatever your preference, there is no denying that pasta is not just a beloved food staple in Italy but across the globe. Buon appetito!

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