Long, short, huge, grooved, smooth, with egg, bronze drawn, broth pasta, broken, rough…we agree that there are so many shapes and types of pasta today, but where did we start from?
Except for the fights regarding the real origins of pasta and the legend that it was Marco Polo who brought it to Italy (I will talk about that later), there are incontrovertible historical elements that seem to give very important and concrete answers on the shape of this food in the past.
Little spoiler: were not elbow macaroni or even spaghetti.
Keep reading if you are curious to know more: let’s go back in time with a virtual DeLorean!
The ancestor of Italian pasta in Roman times
When I went looking for information on the most ancient origins of pasta, my questions and doubts about the first format ever invented oriented, most of all, between spaghetti and ziti. I could never have imagined that the first proto-pasta was a kind of lasagna!
The oldest pasta format was the làgana, a rectangle of well-worked pasta under the laganaturo, or rather, the rolling pin. The word dates back to the Greek laganon, which then passed into Latin. Indeed, two characters from ancient Rome who lived in the first century BC speak of laganum: the poet Horace and the gastronome Apicius.
Although we do not have photos of food bloggers from the Roman era, we can venture that most likely the làgane of ancient Rome were similar to modern lasagna and this explains why they were cooked in the oven.
Therefore, analyzing several Roman sources, this detail emerged crystal clear: the lagane were thin sheets of pasta cooked in the oven and stuffed (or maybe only accompanied) with eggs, meat, fish but also with herbs and aromas. Someone even put forward the hypothesis of a light fry; someone else, reading Horace, clarified that it was a meal considered very simple and almost plebeian.
However, this is the first known format of pasta, also appreciated by the Greeks and Etruscans.
The first Long Pasta dates back to Arab Sicily
Now that we have understood that the very first pasta is dated to Roman times and it resembled today’s lasagna, we still need to understand when the form of long pasta that today represents Italian pasta in the world, spaghetti of course, was invented!
The first evidence of real long pasta is found in Islamic Sicily: it was called triyah (in Arabic, itrija). The format was long and in threads (sound familiar, right?) and it was obtained by working the flour. The production took place in Trabia (Palermo) but spread through export throughout the Italian peninsula. The first certain witness dates back to 1154, so it is assumed that it was an even more ancient gastronomic tradition.
Although the world of pasta has undergone several evolutions and upheavals since then, in Sicily the term tria still exists, which identifies a specific local format.
But what do the Arabs have to do with Sicily and pasta?
Southern Italy has always fascinated the navigators or those who lived in the surrounding territories and it has often been prey to invasions and raids, but also the “adoptive mother” for many peaceful people who fell in love with its wealth and luxuriance. Among these patrons there were the Arabs who, in order to conquer the island, it took them 75 years.
However, the history of Islamic Sicily lasted very little: in total, it did not manage to go beyond two centuries (827 – 1091, when the Muslims were replaced by the Normans).
A time that was enough to give life to what would have made Italy the queen of the Mediterranean diet…also thanks to the Saracen invaders, who perfected the pasta drying technique. In fact, experts believe that pasta was born from the bond that the Arabs established with the territory, although they probably had already interfaced with this food in the past.
Who really brought pasta to Italy? Not Marco Polo…
For a long time, it was thought that pasta had been brought to Italy by the explorer Marco Polo after his travels in distant China where, at the time (late thirteenth century) tasteful spaghetti was already being eaten.
The fact that Marco Polo who brought pasta to Italy is just an urban legend born in America in the Macaroni Journal, published by an association of US and Canadian industrialists with the purpose of ennobling pasta in the American consumers’ eyes so that it was perceived as a more international food and not tied to the Italian ghettos, the intention was to avoid relating the food with the widespread opinion that united Italian immigrants to the criminals.
However, it was precisely by delving into the ancient history of Sicily that it was found out that, in reality, in that same period, pasta that arrived from the South was already being tasted in Genoa; thanks to the intense exchanges between Ligurian city and the Sicilian city of Trapani.
Palermo was the first city to export both artisanal and industrial pasta; the first shapes that spread nationally and internationally were long, just like those that the Romans and Chinese already tasted.
A curiosity: in those days, cooking pasta took much longer than the traditional modern “al dente“ one which established itself in the seventeenth century!
Why was the industrial production of pasta born in Southern Italy?
The pasta had to be dried in the open air and for this reason, several cities began to work hard to obtain the best possible product. The chosen territories were some of Apulia and, above all Gragnano, near Naples, where the urban morphology proved to be perfect for combining the humidity coming from the “sea air” and the burning sun that slipped between buildings and windows.
Even today, Gragnano pasta is considered among the best in the world and the local drying process takes from 6 to 70 hours!
Speaking of foreign dominations: in Spanish Naples, things did not always go well. A terrible starvation brought people to their knees, instilling several revolts, including that of the famous Masaniello which led to the birth of the short-lived Neapolitan Republic (1799).
In that scenario, the consumption of meat and bread plummeted and that of pasta soared, which became even more accessible thanks to the technological revolution (in those years, they invented the press and the die, just to make an example).
The Italians became “the macaroni eaters” and that simple and poor dish was turned into a national identity.
The only thing that was missing was the advent of tomato sauce to give life to what would have been a perfect and eternal marriage, which still speaks of Italy in the world today.