The word 'pasta' conjures something Italian and then an infinite variety of
interesting shapes formed from pasta dough. The origin of pasta is difficult
to pinpoint; there is evidence that the Etruscans, whose empire lasted from
1044 BC until 351 BC when they submitted to the Romans, ate macaroni.
A macaroni maker can be seen in the frescoes of an ancient Etruscan
tomb. Later the subjects of the Mogul Emperor enjoyed the food that
Marco Polo (1250-1324) is given credit for introducing to Italy when he
returned from China late in the thirteenth century.
Long before Marco Polo returned from China, the Arabs and the people of
the Indus Valley were eating pasta. Any wheat-growing region could have
developed it, and quite possibly the ancient Sumerians or Egyptians served
it in some form or another. Both the Arabic and Indian languages used an
existing word for noodles. The Indians called their noodles 'sevika'
meaning "thread" and the Arabs used the word 'rishta' meaning the same
thing. It is likely that noodles were introduced from both Arabia and India to
Italian port cities before Marco Polo. He recorded his accomplishments and
therefore generally receives credit, though the Chinese made noodles from
rice and bean flour over 3000 years ago.
Wheat being so popular with the ancient Romans, it is strange that pasta
took so long establishing itself as the national dish. It is just as strange that
the dish was imported. A system called "Annona", begun by Roman
statesman Gaius Gracchus in 123 BC, was very popular with the average
Roman citizen. Initiated to counter a serious inflation it allowed the citizens
to buy from public granaries well below the market price. This ensured the
availability of bread at an affordable price. The "Annona" was probably the
first large government subsidized project. Individual. politicians must have
vied with each other to gain or remain in office by offering cheaper and
cheaper grain to the citizens. By the time of Emperor Augustus (63 BC to
14 AD) 330,000 citizens were being fed by the "Annona" system, about
one-third the population of Rome. It required the importation of seventeen
million bushels of wheat annually, about one-third came from Egypt and the
remainder from North Africa. This created a great burden on the Empire's
By the late thirteenth Century many wealthy Italian families had Tartar (also
Mongol) slaves in their households. These slaves probably brought with
them the technology of noodle making. The Italians were in a way
surrounded by pasta eaters and producers with whom they traded
extensively; the Arabs in the south, the Indians to the east, and they were
infiltrated by the Tartars from the northeast.
No wonder that by 1353 pasta had been accepted into the Italian menu.
Boccaccio's book, 'Decameron' which was published that year, mentions
both spaghetti and ravioli as well as a grated Parmesan cheese sauce. The
word spaghetti is derived from the word 'spago' which means "string".
The Italians worked hard on the shapes and names for the twisted,
contorted pasta pieces, and both they and the world have been rewarded
by a multitude of interesting and delicious dishes made from them. Shapes
are often described by the Italian word that identifies them: cannelloni "big
pipes", lasagna "baking pot", minestrone "dished out", ravioli" little turnips",
spaghetti, "little strings", vermicelli "little worms", capellini, d'angelo "angles
hair", and many more; pastas means dough paste.
The tortellini is a piece of shaped pasta looking like an inverted navel. It
supposedly is the work of a Bologna chef who spent much time looking out
his window watching a girl in an apartment across the courtyard dress and
undress. She took to pulling down the shade but it did not entirely cover
the window. He could still see in, but he could only see her navel. The
Chef decided she had the most beautiful navel in the world and created this
dish in its honor. Quite a dedicated chef, as the dish takes over two hours
Italians have credited the fertility of their people to the starches in macaroni
and spaghetti. However, maybe the long siestas after the large spaghetti
and macaroni lunches are as responsible as the starch for creating the
Enjoy a delicate "Tortellini" when next in Bologna.
Possibly the Italians were waiting on the tomato to make those delicious
sauces before becoming involved in pasta. The tomato did not arrive in
Europe until after the discovery of the New World in 1492 when Columbus
sailed the ocean blue.