Italy’s Six Hundred Types of Pasta

Although international myths claim that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy during the 13th century, Italians vehemently dispute this claim. They say frescoes in Etruscan tombs show rolling pins and dough. What’s more, ancient Roman writers, such as Cicero and Apicius describe something akin to lasagna. Whatever the truth, the strings of pasta as we know them today came about in Naples during the 1700’s. At first, it was a dish eaten by the common people. The southern Mediterranean weather, including the light breezes from the sea and hot winds from Mt. Vesuvius allowed cooks to dry their pasta evenly on racks. It was eaten plain and with the hands.

Pasta was sold by the maccaronari, who fired up charcoal-stoked cauldrons along the streets. The sight of them was so popular that images of them were second only to images of Mt. Vesuvius.

In my favorite Italian-language book called, Pasta: Passione e Fantasia by chef duo Antonio Chiodi Latini and Mario Busso, they say that pasta passed into the Court kitchen of King Ferdinand IV during the 1700′s thanks to his Chamberlain. The word spaghetti comes from spaghi, meaning small strings. The Chamberlain had the idea of using a fork with four short points instead of the hands, making the dish royal enough to eat. The use of tomatoes then entered the court kitchen and the popularity of using sauces was also born.

Today, Italians consider pasta so important, both as a nutritional meal as well as part of their national pride, that they have created a non-profit organization called the International Pasta Organization. Founded in 2005, the organization celebrates an International Pasta Day that takes place every October 25th. They maintain that Italy ranks as having the highest pasta production in the world at 3.2 million tons per year. They also have the highest world pasta consumption at 26 kilograms per capita. (Venezuela comes in at a paltry second with 13 kg per capita.)

Italians are also the largest innovators of the food; over six-hundred types exist, their varieties stuffed down several aisles of every Italian grocery store.

Latini and Busso divide pasta into dried and fresh. Dried pasta is popular because it can be stored for long periods of time. According to Italian law, dry pasta must be made with 100% durum semolina flour and water. Fresh pastas, on the other hand, must be eaten immediately. In the northern regions of Italy they often use all purpose flour and eggs for their fresh pasta, while in the southern regions they use semolina and water without eggs.

Latini and Busso also provide a tour of pasta by dividing them into short and long varieties.

Short pastas include: cannelloni, cavatelli, farfalle, fusilli, gnocchi, maccheroni, penne, ravioli, rigatoni, and tortellini. There’s the exotic cavatelli (from Puglia and made with the point of a finger), garganelli (rolling a flat square pasta into a tube), and ruote (usually served in summer and tricolored).

The list of long pastas include: fettuccine, linguine, pappardelle, spaghetti, tagliatelle, vermicelli, and ziti. The bavette, a narrower version of tagliatelle, is best eaten with a fish or shellfish sauce. The bucatini is typical of central Italy that averages 10-12 inches long and 1/8 inch in diameter with a hole running in the middle. It’s often eaten with a buttery sauce or pancetta.

When making pasta at home, a few additional tips are essential:

  • Smooth pasta doesn’t hold onto sauce well, so make sure your pasta variety has a bit of a grainy texture.
  • Al dente from the word “teeth” means your pasta should be firm to the teeth, yet tender. Cooking pasta this way gives the extra nutritional benefit of being a good source of fiber.
  • Add liberal amounts of salt to the boiling water. This is how you season the pasta properly.
  • Don’t rinse your pasta because it will take the flavor of the salt out.
  • Save some of the hot starchy water because it will give your sauce some body.

What’s your favorite kind of pasta?