While the exact origins of pasta are difficult to trace (some believe that it was brought from China by Marco Polo), its history is inextricably linked to the history of Italy. Under Mussolini, an avant-garde group called the Futurists tried to ban pasta and get the Italian people to eat more like the rest of the modern world. Thankfully, the mayor of Naples fought back, proclaiming vermicelli with tomato sauce the ‘food of the angels’ and saving the dish from.
Even so, a lot of the dishes that many people think of as quintessentially Italian didn’t gain currency until the late 19th century, when the largest wave of Italian immigrants came to the United States (most from Naples). Some pasta traditions—such as stuffed shells and orecchiette with broccoli rabe—survived the journey across the Atlantic, but immigrants were forced to adapt many dishes based on ingredients available to them in the new world.
Cookie-cutter shapes became the norm after Italy’s Industrial Revolution, which allowed pasta to be extruded by machines. And since pasta has long been a food of the common folk, many of the sauces and condiments that gained popularity were simple and cheap—tomatoes, like extruded pasta, could be preserved and exported easily to Italian people all over the world.
Today, Italian food dominates the dining scene, though many pasta dishes have broken free of its peasant food connotations—these days, it’s not uncommon to find a bowl of pappardelle for more than $17 these says. Yet despite its popularity (or perhaps because of it), few people question the traditions and techniques that make truly great pasta special. To help us clear up some common misconceptions, we chatted up pasta pro Adam Leonti of Vetri restaurant in Philadelphia for a quick master class.
The Expert: Adam Leonti received his first book on how to make pasta at age 14. Fresh off of a trip to Naples, Leonti is now writing his own book on pasta alongside chef Marc Vetri. It will focus on uncovering the history behind pasta dishes that we know and love.
A pasta and its sauce are meant to be one cohesive unit.
Leonti says: Sauce is the condiment; pasta is the main. The topping should fit with the pasta seamlessly. Take linguini with clams. For a tiny clam, linguini is better than spaghetti because it is thinner, more delicate, and flat enough to scoop up the clams. The same rule goes for risotto, like risotto Milanese—which is made with saffron and bone marrow—or squid-ink risotto. The rice is the main ingredient. Chicken, large pieces of vegetables, seafood…these do not belong in risotto. The additive should enhance the flavor of the rice, not take away from it.
That being said, most pasta is served with sauce that can adhere to the shape of the noodle.
Leonti says: Thin strands are typically meant for light sauces. Something like angel hair is served with olive oil and garlic, whereas fettucine can carry a heavier sauce like Alfredo. Heartier sauces with ground meat usually accompany tube shapes with ridges, like rigatoni—the tubes are wide enough to fill up with the sauce, and the ridges allow thick sauces to adhere to the outside. A long, smooth noodle is best tossed in an oil-based sauce like pesto. Supersize shapes—like ziti and shells—are typically stuffed and baked.
But some shapes are solely decorative and not functional.
Leonti says: Farfalle—also known as “bow ties”— serves no purpose other than its aesthetic. For Italian people, presentation is not a garnish. (This notion stretches beyond pasta; it is central to Italian social etiquette.) So if you have a square sheet of pasta to use for your meal, and you pinch it to look like a butterfly, it becomes something beautiful and unique. It makes something simple become special.
Most of the popular pasta-and-sauce pairings in the United States are rooted in the ingredients that were available to poor Italian immigrants living in urban environments.
Leonti says: When Italian immigrants, mostly from southern Italy, arrived in cities like Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Baltimore, they no longer had access to gardens and farms with fresh zucchini flowers and juicy oranges. Instead, they had potatoes, corn, and tomatoes—and not much else. As Italian-American cuisine evolved, things like spaghetti and tomato sauce and potato gnocchi took off. Most people associate gnocchi with potato, but the word gnocchi refers only to a shape (the word actually means “lump” in Italian). Gnocchi can be made with almost any vegetable. Potato became the most commonly known because it is available anywhere at any time of year, and because the starch and flour come together easily, whereas squash and spinach and chestnut are more difficult to find and work with.
Many of the cookie-cutter pasta shapes we know came about in recent history (post-Industrial Revolution) because they could be extruded from a machine and mass-produced to ship worldwide.
Leonti says: Spaghetti is one of the most popular pasta shapes and was one of the first extruded pastas—it is an easy shape for a machine to produce. The same goes for penne and cavatelli. These newer shapes became substitutes for handmade pastas, like rigatoni. Because they could be made with a machine then easily dried and stored, these shapes became staples in pasta dishes around the world.
Stuffed pastas like ravioli and tortellini were created to make use of leftover food.
Leonti says: Meals in most Italian homes—save for the wealthy class—were meant to be inexpensive and long-lasting. A family would eat meat one night, then use the leftover scraps of meat as pasta filling the next night. Because the pasta and meat would taste dry without using more butter or oil to cook, these filled pastas were often served in hot broth cooked with the bones from the animal as well. Cheese ravioli is the version that came from the wealthier region of Emilia-Romagna, where cows produce up to 12 gallons of milk per day.
Fresh pasta and dried pasta are made differently, so they should be cooked differently as well.
Leonti says: Dried pasta is usually made from purified durum wheat, which has the highest percentage protein of any flour (14-16% versus around 8% for other common flours), and it is mixed for a long period of time by a giant machine before being extruded. This process makes it a lot stronger and less absorbent, so you can cook the pasta for 14 minutes and it will maintain that strong feel to the tooth—what we know as al dente. Fresh pasta is never served al dente—ever. Fresh pasta is mixed for a very short time and is made with either semolina or all-purpose flour and egg; it can cook in just 30 to 40 seconds. It still has bounce to it, but it will never have that strong texture no matter how you cook it.