Benito Mussolini—the father of fascism, a.k.a. "Il Duce"—had a vision for Italy's future, and that vision remarkably didn't include one of its greatest culinary birthrights. The same leader who promised to reform Italian culture was hell-bent on erasing pasta from its national identity. The mayor of Naples, a man of reason, would have no part of this plan, resisting the Futurists' agenda and reminding people that vermicelli with tomato sauce was a "food of the angels."
Pasta, as we know, eventually won the battle, evolving into a global icon. And while it still carries with it a historical drama, pasta was largely celebrated for its supreme versatility thanks to its basic elements: flour, water, and often eggs; maybe a few tomatoes or fresh herbs. But in the hands of a master—mindful of how a sauce fundamentally clings to a pasta shape—those bare ingredients are transformed into something greater than the sum of their parts.
Chefs often speak about the process of pasta-making in reverential tones; after all, many careers in the kitchen have been solidified by the ability to execute perfect al dente spaghetti, and ambitious home cooks (looking at you, Aziz) see it as a rite of passage. "Like anything great or timeless, pasta is very simple, but when done well is unforgettable," says chef Bryce Shuman.
Faced with limited ingredients, Italian immigrants who came to America began modifying their traditions, substituting familiar things like zucchini flowers for potatoes and tomatoes, both of which were accessible and cheap. While we rightfully exalt the virtues of fresh pasta, it was the influx of dry pasta shapes—extruded from machines following the Industrial Revolution—that conditioned America's love for it and allowed for its adaptability. The mass production of penne and spaghetti ensured that households could whip up a quick carb fest any day of the week. And like all great things with a blank-slate quality, pasta underwent the gradual process of regional interpretation, picking up unusual flourishes in the heart of southern barbecue territory, or getting remixed by Italian-Americans who had a spiritual connection to their motherland.
Pasta's journey from rags to riches is one that Los Angeles pasta savant Evan Funke once described as romantic. "This art that's so highly thought of across the world is really born from necessity to feed your family in a creative way. How do I make this fun and interesting and delicious with the few ingredients I have?"
With the help of chefs who have plied their pasta craft, and writers who've eaten their way across the country, here we take stock of the memorable pasta dishes that shape America.
- Tim Carman, James Beard Award-winning food columnist at The Washington Post (@timcarman)
- Jordana Rothman, food and drink writer, co-author of Tacos: Recipes and Provocations (@jordanarothman)
- Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time (@soulfoodscholar)
- Russell Moore, chef at Camino (@caminooakland)
- Kat Kinsman, senior food and drinks editor at Extra Crispy (@kittenwithawhip)
- Edmund Tijerina, food and drink editor at the San Antonio Express-News (@etij)
- Josh Scherer, senior food writer at Los Angeles Magazine (@culinarybrodown)
- Foster Kamer, executive editor at Mental Floss (@weareyourfek)
- Chris Schonberger, editor-in-chief at First We Feast (@cschonberger)
- Kenji López-Alt, Managing Culinary Director at Serious Eats and creator of The Food Lab (@TheFoodLab)
- Ross Scarano, deputy editor at Complex Music (@rossscarano)
- Regan Hofmann, food writer, contributor at Punch (@regan_hofmann)
- Tim Cushman, chef at O Ya and Covina (@cheftimcushman)
- DJ Dieselboy, drum and bass DJ (@djdieselboy)
- Sam Hiersteiner, food writer (@samsgoodfeed)