Let’s be clear since the beginning: were not the Chinese to invent pasta, hence it did not come to Italians thanks to Marco Polo. Instead, it was born in Arab Sicily, to then go up all over Italy. Passing through Naples and Genoa. This is the curious story of the dish symbolizing Italianness.
It is difficult to trace a symbol of Italians that is lighter and more universal than pasta. However, it has not always been treated properly. From the appellations of “macaroni” and “spaghetti-eaters” trimmed to our emigrants, to the futurist commandment of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who advocated nothing less than “the abolition of pastasciutta, an absurd Italian gastronomic religion”, symbol of a “heavy” tradition and a specific image of a lazy and indolent Italy, in other words “passatista” (who lives in the past), the complete opposite of Futurist dynamism, according to which “badly or grossly fed men have achieved great things in the past”.
In short, pasta during its secular history has really seen it cooked and raw. But who invented it? What are the threads that indissolubly bind Italy to pasta? It is not easy to answer these questions, especially when it comes to a popular dish and all in all as simple as pasta. What is certain is that Romans, Greeks and Etruscans knew the ancestor of the lasagna, or the “lagana”, thin sheets of pasta stuffed with meat and baked in the oven.
To find something more similar to our pasta it is necessary to fly to the end of 1154, when the Arab geographer Edrisi described “a food of flour in the form of threads”, called “triyah” (from the Arabic “itrija”), which was made in Trabia (Palermo) and exported in barrels throughout the peninsula.
In Sicily, even today, we speak of “vermiceddi di tria” (vermicelli) or “tria bastarda”. As in Puglia, another region whose coasts were dominated for a brief period by the Arabs, of “massa e tria”, “tria e ciceri” (particular variant of pasta and chickpeas, typical of Salento) and “tridde” or “triddi”. The fact is that, according to Edrisi, in the twelfth century in Palermo and its environs “a lot of pasta is produced that is exported to all parts, in Calabria and in other Muslim and Christian countries; and many shipments of ships are sent”.
It is now clear: dry pasta – suitable for long-term storage and transported to distant destinations – was born in the sunny and windy western Sicily, during the Arab domination. Arabs who, perhaps even before the conquest of the island, may already have known dry pasta, especially the short one, useful for guaranteeing food supplies during movements in the desert.
One thing is certain: pasta, in Italy, was known well before 1295, the year of Marco Polo’s return from China and his contact with Chinese “spaghetti”. As early as the 12th century, Genoese merchants had spread pasta from western Sicily (the links between Trapani and Genoa are known and ancient, evident in gastronomy in the kinship between Genoese and Trapani pesto) throughout northern Italy.
To these pastas, subjected to a cooking that we would consider very long – the taste for “al dente” pasta probably dates back to the seventeenth century – the most varied condiments were combined: in general, grated cheese in large quantities and powdered spices. In general, on the aristocratic tables’ pasta was considered a side dish, while for the popular layers it was instead a single dish.
The production of pasta, meanwhile, began to climb the boot, moving throughout southern Italy and Liguria, where the dry and windy climate favored drying in the open air: Gragnano, Torre Annunziata, but also Puglia. The rest of Italy, for climatic reasons, remained linked to the production of egg pasta, not dried and probably born from the contamination with the Roman “lagana”. But pasta, although widespread, was not yet a mass dish.
It will become so only in the 600s, in the Neapolitan city, the largest in Europe, where demographic overcrowding and Spanish fiscalism led the population to hunger thereafter the consumption of meat and bread collapsed. So the population turned to pasta, which the producers made cheaper thanks to a technological revolution. Already in the eighteenth century the Neapolitans earned the title of “mangia-maccheroni” (epithet already reserved for Sicilians) and also in the rest of Italy pasta became a national symbol, a poor and popular dish par excellence. In those years, in Naples, the inseparable companion of pasta, tomato sauce, was invented. “The macaroni are cooked, and we will eat them,” Cavour will write on the eve of the annexation of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies while, for the first time, Italy was made.