Spaghetti, macaroni, penne, fettuccine. They’re all different types of pasta, one of the most popular dishes on the planet. When you think of pasta, it’s hard to not picture Italy. Not only does most of the pasta we eat originate from Italy, but nobody eats more pasta per capita than Italians, who feast on an average of 50 pounds of pasta per year.
Legend has it that Venetian explorer Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China in the 13th century, but evidence shows it was, in fact, in the European country well before Polo traveled the Silk Road. Roman poet Horace wrote about lagana in the 1st century, the oldest pasta that somewhat resembles modern-day lasagna. The biggest difference? Lagana was fried then cut into strips, not boiled in water like the pasta we know today.
While we don’t know precisely when pasta became such an important part of Italian culture, we can share the story of how this food became loved in this boot-shaped country and beyond.
Why Pasta Took Off in Italy
The pasta in your cupboard at home or the fresh pasta you order at a restaurant is usually made with the same ingredients — the flour of durum wheat mixed with water or eggs. But that wasn’t always the case. Pasta in the Middle Ages was cooked for much longer and included spices to make it spicy or sweet, something you rarely see in modern pasta.
Part of why pasta production became an essential part of life in Italy was because the durum wheat used in pasta is well suited for Italy’s climate. In particular, the soil type and weather of Sicily and Campania were ideal for growing durum wheat. This wheat was first introduced to the Sicily region by the Arabs in the 9th or 10th century. It’s a hard type of wheat, and when milled, produces semolina, a coarse flour that resembles sugar and is full of proteins that increase the gluten content. These high quantities of gluten mean it can be stored for long periods. In turn, pasta was brought worldwide as it could be stored on the ships of explorers on long voyages. Of course, the delicious taste of pasta also helped make this food so popular!
Naples became the epicenter of the pasta industry thanks to the perfect climate for drying pasta. Mild sea breezes along with hot winds from Mount Vesuvius meant the fresh pasta wouldn’t get moldy from drying too slowly or crack from drying too fast. Between 1700 and 1785, the number of pasta shops in Naples alone expanded from 60 to 280, helped in part by the invention of machines like the torchio used for making noodles. Around this time, Neapolitans were so fond of pasta, they were known as mangiamaccheroni, or macaroni-eaters. Rich or poor, pasta was enjoyed by everyone.
Pasta Introduced to Tomatoes
A plain pasta noodle is nothing without its favorite companion, the tomato. When pasta took off in Naples, it was typically eaten with bare hands and seasoned with cheese. This all changed in the 19th century when tomatoes, basil, and a pinch of salt were added to pasta dishes. In 1839, the first pasta recipe involving tomatoes was documented, a delicious marriage of flavors that’s been going steady ever since. But this wasn’t always the case. When tomatoes were first introduced to Italy from the New World, they had the nickname “devil’s fruit” because of their color. Tomatoes were also blamed for causing food poisoning and other illnesses. Luckily for taste buds worldwide, these beliefs changed. Italy embraced tomatoes for cooking with pasta and other culinary delights such as pizza. Get an up-close look at tomatoes in Italy with a tomato tasting experience in the Tuscan countryside. Learn about tomato cultivation and production, then sit down for a tasting of local bruschetta paired with the famous Bolgheri wine.
From Macaroni to Orecchiette
There are more than 350 different kinds of pasta in Italy alone, all having different names based on their size and shape. For example, spaghetti is the familiar name of the common pasta, but there’s also the thinner version named spaghettini and a wider variety called spaghettoni.
The 20 regions of Italy are known for different types of pasta, each one designed to hold sauce in a certain way. In Campania, located in Southern Italy, you’ll find the area is known for the iconic penne pasta. The name means pen or quill, and its hollow pen-like shape is designed to hold tomato or meat sauces and go in pasta bakes.
In the region of Sicily, the historic city Catania is famous for Pasta Alla Norma. This regional dish features noodles, covered in tomato sauce, eggplant, and ricotta. People have been singing its praises for hundreds of years, with the name coming as a tribute to the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini.
In Puglia, a picturesque region in the heel of Italy’s boot, orecchiette is the pasta of choice. The name means ear, derived from their shape, as this pasta resembles a small ear. Orecchiette is the perfect shape for soaking up sauces and is traditionally served with broccoli rabe. In addition, Liguria in North-Western Italy is known for trofie, a rolled pasta typically served with pesto.
Along with pasta, each region of Italy has its own culinary traditions. From pizza to gelato, learn about the food of Italy in our pocket guide to eating in Italy.
The Perfect Pairing: Pasta and Wine
While tomatoes may bring out the best of pasta, another Italian product pairs perfectly as a beverage. Long before Italians were eating pasta, they were producing wine. In fact, there’s evidence that production first started between 1300 and 1100 B.C. after traces of 6,000-year-old wine were found in a cave in Sicily. In the Dark and Middle Ages, monks and the Catholic Church were the primary makers of wine in the region.
With thousands of years of experience making wine and a climate suited to growing vineyards, Italy continues to be the top wine producer globally. Producing 42 to 55 million hectoliters of wine each year, Italy is responsible for a quarter of worldwide production.
Much like how each region of Italy is known for its own particular type of pasta, it’s the same with wine. In Catania in the Sicily region, we’ll take you to a local winery where you’ll enjoy delicious wine with distinct varietals from lava-enriched soil in the area. When visiting the enchanting Tuscany countryside, tour a vineyard and take a Tuscan-cuisine cooking class and make your own pasta. Or try wine at Castello di Velona, an 11th-century castle that’s now a thermal spa and winery.
Make Your Own Pasta
Want to not only learn about the pasta of the Lazio region but try your own hand at making it? While in Civitavecchia, you’ll have a chance to meet a local culinary expert who gives you an exclusive lesson in making fresh pasta at a charming local farmhouse. Then, you get to put your creation to the taste test at lunchtime with the pasta you just made, perfectly paired with a selection of local wine.
A Getaway You Can’t Pass Up
If you’re looking to immerse yourself in rich culinary traditions, join us in Italy and sip and taste your way around this country that’s left an indelible mark on the cuisine of the world.
Pack your suitcase and bring your appetite on your next Italian getaway.
Browse our upcoming voyages to Italy today.
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