The origins of pasta are obscure. It is popularly supposed that Marco Polo brought the idea back from his travels in China but it is more likely that the Arabs introduced pasta to Sicily sometime around the eighth century. Whatever the truth it is certainly the case that by the middle ages pasta was well established in Italy. The durability of the dried version meant that it became a favoured food item on long sea voyages (perhaps making it an early example of a convenience food!) and its use gradually spread across the world.
Over the years diverse shapes and styles of pasta evolved for different purposes, and each region of Italy devised its own local variations. There are now around 350 types available, but of course only a small number of these can be found outside Italy. One of the pleasures of a trip to Italy is looking at the shop window displays where all manner of pasta is piled up: an assortment of styles, flavours and even pasta sculpture!
There are a number of ways of classifying pasta. Fresh or dried is an obvious distinction, as is long or short. But a useful way of dividing them is by families, according to their method of manufacture and use.
- Sheets. The pasta is rolled out into thin sheets, the commonest form being lasagne. These sheets can be rolled up into large tubes (cannelloni) or used to make filled pasta (see below).
- Strips. Sheets of pasta can be cut into long strips of varying width, from the broad pappardelle (up to 2.5 cm) to the more common tagliatelle or very narrow tagliatellini.
- Strands. The pasta is forced through a die to create long strands. The commonest form is spaghetti but other widths are produced, an example being the very fine capellini (literally ‘angel hair’).
- Cylinders and shapes. Different shapes and widths of die are used to create cylinders (for instance macaroni or penne), hollow pasta such as conchiglie (‘seashells’) or other shapes, including cavatappi (‘corkscrews’) and very small varieties like orzo (which is the shape and size of a grain of rice).
Filled and flavoured pasta
Filled pasta goes back to the middle ages and almost every region of Italy has its own varieties. These include square ravioli and round anolini, and fillings can be of meat, cheese or vegetables. In Mantua you can get the large tortelli con zucca which are filled with pumpkin, parmesan cheese and sweet biscuits. A form originating in Puglia is quadrucci – thin squares of pasta with whole parsley leaves in between.
Another way that pasta manufacturers have varied their product is by the use of colours. Pasta verde (green pasta flavoured with spinach) is now widely used outside of Italy, but black pasta (coloured with cuttlefish ink) and red or pink pasta (made with beetroot juice or tomato puree) are less well known. The Sardinian maloreddus owes its bright yellow colour to the addition of saffron. And of course, with the invention of modern food colourings, a whole range of colours is now available.
Pastamakers have always enjoyed experimenting with shapes, so that we have farfalle (‘butterflies’), ruote (‘wheels’) and even radiatore (‘radiators’). However modern manufacturing methods have allowed a whole range of pastas to proliferate, ranging from cats and dogs to footballs and baseball bats! The Italian tourist market is well catered for, examples being ‘Buildings of Italy’ or the heart-shaped pasta available in the Juliet shop in Verona.
Which pasta should I use?
Much has been written about which sauce to have with each pasta but much of it comes down to personal taste. As a general rule long and large pasta suit heavy sauces; shells and spirals are designed to take up a lot of sauce; and smaller pasta is good in salads or bakes. Very small pasta is usually used for soup. Fresh or stuffed pasta only need a very light sauce, or even just butter and parmesan.