FOOD : Pasta of Times Past : The Classic Italian School Decries the Travesty of ‘Authentic’ Cooking

<i> From "Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking," by Julia della Croce, to be published in October by Chronicle Books. </i>

IT IS IRONIC that the dreary standardization of Italian cooking in America was brought on by none other than the Italian immigrants themselves. The staples of their home regions--for the most part, Naples, Sicily, Calabria and Abruzzi--were the prolific tomato, the rich oil of the tenacious olive tree and dried pasta. Although a great variety of dishes appears on the native Italian’s family table, the formula of tomato sauce and “Parmesan” cheese was fast, profitable and suited to the unsophisticated American palate. What a sad day for pasta.

Fortunately, America today is in the midst of a gastronomic revolution. The contemporary American palate is less restrained than it once was in its consideration of unfamiliar foods and flavors. Foods once considered strictly ethnic and strange--squid, strong cheeses, chewy prosciutto and sausage of different kinds--have become commonplace, even outside Italian neighborhoods.

Pasta innovations have burst in a spectrum of unorthodox flavors and colors, sauced with everything from caviar to kiwi fruit. It has become fashionable to make pasta in new and complicated ways. Some are good and some are not. The authentic cuisine is so transformed by the addition of every imaginable spice and herb, novelty food and sauce, that the basic ingredients are sometimes scarcely recognizable. The classic Italian school decries the travesty made on what is considered authentic preparation of pasta. An added flavor such as mushroom is meant to go in the sauce, not in the dough. Undaunted, the new school, led by the proponents of what might be called novelty cuisine, cranks out pasta in an assortment to rival ice cream producers’ propensity to deliver dozens of flavors. Among the creations are red


tomato pasta (albeit a classic), purple-beet pasta (also with its roots in the classic cuisine), and the more shocking avocado, asparagus, pesto , broccoli, mushroom and curry noodles, combined with such unlikely sauces as raspberry vinegar and walnut-oil dressing.

The Italians make an eloquent case for respecting age-old dicta about pasta. Although there is plenty of room for invention of the right sort, the idea is that improvisation in cooking, as in art, should be guided by an understanding of composition and balance. However, for a time, even Italian cooks flirted with nouvelle cuisine. The result was a Frenchified form of cooking unofficially labled la nuova cucina , “the new (Italian) kitchen.” At heart, the fad was a challenge to traditional ideas of Italian cooking. It preached streamlining the classic cuisine and, in the spirit of all things modern, minimal portions. Ingredients never heard of before in Italian cooking were given a fling--avocados, vodka, smoked-fish stuffing for ravioli, walnut oil. Some ideas such as blending sweet with savory flavors harked back to the Renaissance, to the Middle Ages and to Rome before that.

THE ORIGINS OF PASTAin Italy are unclear. At least the myth that Marco Polo discovered pasta in China and brought it to Italy has been discredited. The world now generally concurs that pasta-eating in Italy began much earlier.

Even before the Romans arrived in Italy, the resident Etruscans had kitchen tools for making and cooking pasta. A bas-relief in an Etruscan tomb at Cerveteri, 30 miles north of Rome, shows all the utensils for making pasta: a jug for drawing water, knives, a rolling pin, a large pastry board with a raised edge for keeping the water close by when mixing it with flour and a fluted-edged pastry wheel for cutting. These are the same tools that are used today in many Italian kitchens for making fresh pasta.

Along with Etruscan sovereignty, the predilection for pasta was passed on to the Romans. The Romans made gnocchi , a type of pasta dumpling, and other types of fresh pasta, including wide, flat ribbons called laganum , precursor of our lasagne.

One of the earliest references to pasta appears in “De re coquinaria” (“On Cooking”), a recipe book first compiled in the 3rd Century by Roman noble and gourmet Marcus Apicius. The original manuscript was lost, but during the Middle Ages copies were made supposedly based on notes that Apicius himself had written. In the 15th Century, when there was a renewed interest in the classical kitchen, facsimiles of “De re coquinaria” appeared in Italy and Germany. The dishes prescribed include dumplings made with flour and chopped meat, and a pasticcio made with alternating layers of laganum and meat.

The Romans held Sicily, cultivating large parts of it for the wheat from which bread and pasta were made, until the Arabs conquered it. The Arabs made pasta in many forms, and they still do. But they are credited with being the first to hollow it out in the center so that it would dry quickly. According to Al Idrisi, the Arab geographer commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily in the early 12th Century to write a book about his explorations of the island, Sicilians made a type of pasta called itriyah (the Persian word for “string”). It was fashioned around a knitting needle to make it hollow. It evolved into tria and then trii , a kind of spaghetti still used in Sicily and some other parts of southern Italy. The antique tria (meaning “little strings”) were served with sweet sauces often based on honey and cinnamon, ingredients that remain prominent in Sicilian cooking.

The evolution of pasta is not easy to unravel, but it does appear that while the Romans and the Etruscans before them had been making fresh pasta for centuries, the Arabs, Persians and nomadic barbarians from the East relied on dried pasta. In the 12th Century, the Italian futurists, aiming to reform Italian eating habits, tried to argue that the continued use of dried pasta was evidence that Italians had failed to shed the barbarian influences of the past. One Dacovio Saraceno, quoted in Marinetti’s revolutionary 1932 manifesto on food, “La Cucina Futuristica,” wrote that Theodoric of Ravenna, who reigned from 493 to 526, learned about macarono through his contact with the barbarians. He passed the recipe on to his cook, Rutufo, so that it could be made for him. A scullery maid who fell in love with one of the palace guards passed the royal secret on to him, and macarono soon became wildly popular among the people. They “boiled it with onions, garlic, and turnips, and licked their fingers and their faces.”


There is scarce word of artful cuisine during the Middle Ages. General eating habits in Europe then were rather grim. Written history says that a black cloud descended upon the land: a combination of barbarian savagery and Christian asceticism. Pleasure and merrymaking of the earthly variety vanished. Or did it? Most people subsisted on gruel and hunted, fished and foraged, as they had always done. But the rich and privileged ate well, as they had always done. In ecclesiastical quarters the gastronomic flame still flickered. The sisters and brothers continued to roll out pasta, cooking it mostly as an ingredient in stews. No doubt pasta and other earthly pleasures were enjoyed more than medieval humans admitted in the confessional box.

Thirteen years before Marco Polo returned from China, a will dated 1279 bestowing a bariscella piena de macaronis (“a basketful of macaroni”) was recorded in the city archives of his hometown of Genoa. It was written by a certain Ponzio Bastone, a military man and sailor. (The archives also contain an earlier document, written in 1244, that mentions pasta lissa , “flat noodles.”) By some accounts, Bastone’s will indicates the great worth of pasta. But, in fact, at this time it was already a common staple aboard ships from the Orient to the West, because dried pasta was a solution to the problems of conserving grain at sea. From the 13th to the 16th centuries it was the sailor’s sustenance as he went from port to port in the Mediterranean basin. It was cooked with lard and salt, and vegetables were added when they could be had.

Indeed, dried pasta ( pasta secca ) seems to have a history all of its own. According to Italian food writer Vincenzo Buonassisi, it may have originally been invented by the Arabs as a way of preserving wheat for their lengthy caravans through the desert. The records of the Museum of the History of Spaghetti in Pontedassio show that Marco Polo dined on Chinese pasta at the court of Kublai Khan and did in fact bring some form of dried pasta back from Java. In his journal, Polo writes: “They have flour from the breadfruit . . . and with it they make bread . . . and lasagne that are very good.”

As was pointed out in the discussion of tria , it is clear that the Saracens introduced dried pasta to Sicily. A number of classic and quintessentially Sicilian pasta dishes made with other ingredients of Arab import persist on the island to this day. Among them are many pasta and eggplant specialties, spaghetti with bread crumbs and raisins, and pasta with sardines flavored with raisins and wild fennel.

Pasta secca may have taken a firm hold in Italy once the trade routes were revived between Asia and the Mediterranean at the end of the first millennium A.D. The Roman trade routes had been disrupted by the disintegration of the Roman Empire and subsequent barbarian invasions. The populations of the Mediterranean fled into the countrysides during the early Middle Ages, and a primitive and feudal rural economic system replaced the commercial Roman economy that had been able to support a thriving international trade. During the latter part of the Middle Ages, however, more-cohesive political units developed throughout Europe, and a growing economy based on revenue began to replace the barter system that had prevailed in early feudal times. The spice trade, which had been of great importance to the Romans and had a lasting influence on Italian cooking, had continued only feebly after the demise of the empire. But with the discovery of new trade routes to the East Indies and an improving economic picture, trade and commerce were revived for the first time since the Roman Age. The ancient Arab dried-pasta tradition became established through the trade and commerce to which the wealthy had access. Historian Reay Tannahill points out that in the 13th and 14th centuries, many well-to-do Italian households had domestic servants from the East, particularly Chinese Mongolian slaves to whom noodle dishes were familiar.

During the Renaissance, the history of modern cooking began, with Italy, then Europe’s most developed nation, leading the way. The cuisines of Florence and Venice, two of the most powerful Italian states, were renowned. Pasta was made in many forms, often cooked with sugar and spices, as this excerpt from Bartolomeo Scappi’s 1475 work “De Honesta Voluptata ac Valetudine” (“Of Honest Pleasure and Well-Being”) illustrates: “The flour should be well-sifted, mixed with water and prepared extended on a table. It should be rolled with an oblong polished piece of wood such as bakers use for this purpose. Then it should be drawn out and cut up to the length of a little finger, or a ribbon. It should be cooked in a fatty broth, kept on a boil. . . . When cooked, it should be transferred to a vessel and served with cheese, butter, sugar and aromatic sweet spices.”


In the Italian city-states, the papal sumptuary laws prohibited the serving of more than three courses at a banquet (and no more than 40 guests at one time) in order to impose moderation on the wealthy. To get around these restrictions, the timballo was invented as a second course. It was a huge pie containing ravioli, macaroni, chickens and game, sausages, eggs found inside the chickens, truffles, and ham, all distributed between layers of pastry alternating with dates and almonds. This extravagant creation was crowned with a lid of sculptured pastry, cooked in the open hearth, and served before a meat course. Another way of eating pasta was as a dessert in a type of pasticcio with chocolate and sweetened, poached oranges, pears and other fruits stuffed between layers of fresh noodles. It was not until the tomato became an accepted food in the late 17th Century that pasta dishes generally took on savory rather than sweet and spicy characteristics.

It was also during the Renaissance that pasta-eating became popular among the people. By the 15th Century, pasta was made commercially in many parts of Italy. Eventually, the pasta-makers ( vermicellai ) formed guilds, and standards for proper pasta-making were established. Vermicellai fought with bakers to prevent them from competing for the pasta market as its popularity increased. The pasta wars brought in the Pope, who tried futilely to bring the bakers under the regulation of the vermicellai guilds, and later, under another papacy, made illegal pasta-making punishable by a fine and three lashings of the whip. The controversy lasted for three centuries. A 1641 papal decree finally put an end to the battle, according to Anna Del Conte’s “Portrait of Pasta,” by declaring that there had to be at least 25 yards between pasta shops in Italy.

These same centuries found the city-states in endless competition or war, a situation that had plagued their economies since the Middle Ages. As a result, pasta developed unique characteristics of shape and styles of cooking in different regions and towns. People invented endless ways to make pasta, relying on what was at hand or in season. A firmly rooted peasant cooking tradition developed, based on local customs, geography and resources. Christian fast-day restrictions brought about a host of meatless fillings for fresh pasta.

AS PASTA ROSE to ascendancy on the Italian scene, scholars, scientists, men of power and even governments warned against its malignant properties. One of the first such iconoclasts, Dr. Giovanni da Vigo, wrote an article 400 years ago defaming, by reason of its threat to health, that beloved Italian gastronomic passion. In the 15th Century, the religious fanatic Girolamo Savonarola condemned such worldly pleasures as good eating as obstacles to everlasting salvation. In an attempt to wrench the Italians from their luxurious pasta habit, the Florentine monk shouted from the pulpit: “It’s not enough for you to eat your pasta fried. No! You think you have to add garlic to it, and when you eat ravioli, it’s not enough to boil it in a pot and eat it in its juice, you have to fry it in another pan and cover it with cheese!” It would be out of character for the Italians to accept self-denial as a regular diet. They eventually fried Savonarola himself--at the stake.

In the early 20th Century, when issues of supermen and wartime preoccupied Europeans, it was conjectured that the meatless pasta diet of the poor south had bred an effete population. Danzig-born Arthur Schopenhauer, renowned for his philosophy of pessimism, had published anti-spaghetti views during the 19th Century. The Italian Fascists renewed the anti-pasta propaganda. Amid furious public protest, including telegrams from America lobbying for pasta, Mussolini considered banning its consumption throughout Italy.

In the 1930s, Marinetti, the Italian futurist poet and social reformer, embarked on a well-publicized crusade to change the Italian diet, specifically the centuries-old “addition” to pasta. “It is necessary, once and for all, to annihilate pasta. . . . Pastasciutta , however grateful to the palate, is an obsolete food; it is heavy, brutalizing, and gross; its nutritive qualities are deceptive; it induces sloth, skepticism, and pessimism.” There was speculation that heavy pasta eaters were slow and placid, while meat eaters were aggressive and purposeful. In a country on the threshold of war, Marinetti’s charge, “Spaghetti is no food for fighters!” did not fall on deaf ears. From the quarters of government, medicine, science and academia, the guardians of power and public conscience wondered if in embracing pasta as a national food, the Italians had not also forfeited their predatory and virile instincts, and dimmed their intellectual capacities.


BUT AMONG THE people there was reverence for pasta, and even a superstition, widely held among the starving masses of southern Italy, that pasta was a food containing magical properties. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, it was already the national main course of southern Italy, particularly of Naples, the poorest of all the provinces. During the Industrial Revolution, which made cheap, dried pasta more widely available than ever before, Naples became the center of commercial pasta manufacturing. From the early 1700s until 1930, when Mussolini influenced the move of the industry to north-central Italy, pasta was the symbol of the city. The hot southern Mediterranean sun and the breezes from the sea produced the perfect environment for drying pasta. A street culture developed around the cooking, selling and eating of dried pasta. Charcoal fires surrounded by makeshift wooden stalls were to be seen everywhere, offering a pot of boiling, salted water full of macaroni. A mound of grated cheese waited to be piled on top of it, and the pasta was eaten just that way, with fingers.

In the beginning of the 19th Century, a national patriotic fervor swept Italy, partially in reaction to centuries of often-oppressive foreign domination by the Spanish, French and Austrians and partially in response to revolutionary movements in other parts of Europe and in Latin America. The idea of a free and united Italy became part of the literature, politics and popular thought of the century, cutting across all social classes. Until this point, the country had been a collection of sovereign regions, each governed by home rule, each very distinct in its traditions and often disparate in its interests. Along with a united Italy, the fight for unification no doubt eventually established pasta as a national, rather than a regional dish.

One of the most important figures of the era was Giuseppe Garibaldi, adventurer, patriot and fearless military leader, who was largely responsible for liberating Milan, Sicily and Naples. With his Expedition of a Thousand, volunteers from all parts of Italy, he set out to liberate the entire south from the despotic Spanish. Garibaldi’s men secured dramatic victories against astonishing odds as they made their way to Sicily, then across the sea to Naples and the southern mainland. His bold military feats inspired patriotism in a population demoralized by past defeats and humiliations. Soldiers returning to their homes in the north brought more than a taste for liberty to their countrymen, however.

FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS, the making of commercial pasta was a primitive affair. At home it was mixed and kneaded by hand, and in the factories it was mixed by foot and hung out to dry on long racks. As late as the 19th Century, commercial pasta operations were outfitted with huge troughs filled with dough, which was kneaded by barefoot workers trodding to the rhythm of mandolin music. The king of Naples, Ferdinand II (1830-1859), tried to modernize by hiring a famous engineer to design a new, more hygienic system. (The result was a mechanical man with bronze feet.) My mother still talks about the donkey-driven grinding wheels that turned wheat into flour for pasta and bread in Sardinia, where she grew up. A similar device was used in the first pasta factory in the United States, located in Brooklyn, where horses were harnessed to a kneading device.

The giant southern Italian pasta industry that developed in the 18th and 19th centuries was founded on the discovery that hard durum-wheat flour (semolina) made a dough superior to that made with standard bread flour. Semolina pasta did not become brittle when dried and held up under packaging, shipping, storing and, ultimately, during boiling. Since, as has been said, coastal climate was the perfect environment for drying pasta once it was made, factories mushroomed along the seaboard, where Russian ships carrying the durum grain could easily unload.

While other nations created parliaments and empires, often poking their noses where they did not belong, Italian creativity manifested itself in the artistry of the Renaissance. It is a trait of the Italian character to transform necessity into art, introducing a touch of the sublime into everyday life. Nowhere is this ability more evident than in the art of eating. Thus, in a country where the mundane aspires to the exquisite (from a doorknob to a pair of shoes), it is not surprising that the small, intricate shapes that emerge from a simple dough of flour and water have become a beloved food the world over.


From “Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking,” by Julia della Croce. Copyright 1987 by Julia della Croce. Reprinted by permission of Chronicle Books.