Why the Italians love pasta

Updated on 14 February 2011 | 0 Comments

Pasta may be a carbohydrate, but it's unthinkable that we should stop eating it.

It is strange to think that at the early stages of this century, we all came perilously close to waving our last farewells to carbohydrates thanks to 'new waves of nutritional thinking’.

But while the exciting novelty of ‘protein only’ fads like the Atkins Diet arrived and expired as swiftly as the bad breath it is alleged to cause, there was at least one nation that never bought into any of it. You’ve guessed it: Italy.

To have been a fly on the wall of Italian bookshops at the time! Surely someone advocating a strict diet of no pasta or pizza would, for an Italian, have been like telling a guitarist to play a tune without a guitar. 

It isn’t just habit which a fad of this sort would ruin. It’s much more to do with the very core of Italian gastronomy.  

The provenance of pasta

Pasta is said to have first surfaced in Italy in Norman times, when King Roger II apparently fed his Sicilian populous with ‘itriyya’ – a dried dough made up of flour and water, almost an exact replica of today’s pasta mixture.

In reality, the Normans may have been pipped to this proverbial post by their even more primeval ancestors in Ancient Greece and the Etruscan civilisation, too.

Whichever date we choose to trace its birth, modern day pasta tells the tale of how an inexpensive, provincial food – cheap to grow and easy to make – rose to become a worldwide delicacy.

How pasta became so popular

Italians migrated to America’s East Coast in the 1900s – 1920s and Italian cuisine enjoyed its first foray to a wider audience.

Oblivious as they would have been at the time, the folk departing Italy with suitcases full of sheets of wheat as comfort food, were in fact to become the founders of a new culinary era.

Americans were so captivated by their visitors’ mass-consumption of inexpensive ‘pasta’ that Italians quickly started selling it in restaurants like the Barbetta in New York. It was of course to be the start of a very long and prosperous relationship.

Ambassadors of Italian cuisine

It is thanks to the great Italian ambassadors and culinary connoisseurs like Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo around us these days who remind us that pasta, cooked correctly, is the reason that most people irrevocably fall in love with Italian food. 

If it were not for chefs of this calibre, few of us in Britain would really understand why pasta is shaped in the way that it is. Jacob Kennedy, owner of top Italian restaurant Bocca di Lupo last year published a comprehensive guide, The Geometry of Pasta, explaining the reasons behind so many of the shapes we have in our shops.

For examples, he explains how ‘farfalle’ are most often eaten with the summer-style pasta  (‘dell’ Estate’) and also preferably eaten on days when butterflies flit around open-air dining tables.

He argues that ‘conchiglie’ – shells – are the cleverest pasta shape, collecting huge amounts of sauce in their grooves and in their bucket-curved body.

And he also goes some way to clarifying how my own personal favourite sort– ‘I strozzapreti’ (literally, ‘priest stranglers’) came to find themselves with that illustrious, malevolent name.

High quality Italian pasta, pure and simple

Although they are happy to pass on their master tips, voices of authority like Carluccio are also eager to help keep the prized Italian dish completely Italian. For while it wouldn’t have been too arduous for wealthy Americans to import authentic durum wheat at the turn of the Century from southern Italy, these days things have changed.

Mills are beginning to emerge around the world in climate-specific areas – owned by Italian companies like Barilla and De Cecco – but there are also a large number of competitors now attempting to create cheaper, lesser-quality produce with alternative flours. This has caused a rise in price of durum wheat – the crucial amber high-protein grain – a trend which original producers will hope to see cease soon.

All in all, Italians are not too fussy about their pasta. As long it is ‘al dente’ (hard, ‘to the teeth’), comes as one of the three hundred-odd traditional shapes and served once, if not, twice a day in plentiful quantities, then they are often happy to forego complex recipes to eat it in its simplest form. An olive oil-drenched, chilli-sprinkled, garlic-shaved and parmesan-layered ‘spaghettata’ would do any rumbling Italian stomach just fine. Check out this recipe by top Italian chef Antonio Carlucci.

As a dish, it is unthinkable Italy would have permitted pasta to slip into culinary history at the mercy of a dietary fad, after all, they need only look to their country’s other famous export – the sexy screen siren Sophia Loren – to justify their reasons.

‘Everything you see I owe to spaghetti,’ she once purred.

That’s got to swing some Carb-haters into thinking another way.


Also worth your attention:

Antonio Carluccio recipe - Wide Pasta Ribbons with Spring Time Sauce

Cookery School – Chicken Chasseur with Fresh Tagliatelle 

Antonio Carluccio, Simple Cooking


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