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.
- 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.