views updated May 17 2018


PASTA. Ground grain of the wheat plant (genus Triticum; family Gramineae or grass), native to Eurasia, forms the fundamental component of commercial "pasta," the generic term for what the U.S. Federal Standards of Identity call "macaroni products." Italian commercial dried pasta combines durum wheat (Triticum durum, hard wheat, or semolina, its coarsely ground endosperm) and water into a large number of shapes and sizes. Soft or common wheat (Triticum vulgare ) is used for homemade or "fresh" pasta (which often contains egg, and sometimes oil and salt), as well as for bread and pastries. These are the two most important wheat grains in the Mediterranean diet.

Pasta is a versatile, nutritious, economical, thus democratic, and increasingly international food. In past times, it was fried and sweetened with honey, or tossed with garum (fish paste) by the ancient Romans. Or it might have been boiled, or baked in rich pies, called timballi, that defied Renaissance sumptuary laws. Today, pasta is usually boiled to a slightly chewy, resistant consistency (al dente ), and dressed with a variety of sauces, eaten in soup, or baked. The oldest, most traditional Italian condiment from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries consisted of butter and cheese (and sugar, cinnamon, and other spices); pasta was also boiled in meat broths. Only since the 1830s was it combined with the now familiar tomato sauce. In the course of its history, pasta has been both a luxury, and only recently (in the nineteenth century), a popular food.

As late as the 1960s, the people of northern Italy normally ate risotto, polenta, and egg pastajust as, in terms of fats, butter versus oil divided the cooler North from the warm South. The leveling of traditional foodways has made pasta a truly national food. However, this Italian first course (primo ) has been adapted to main dish, side dish, salad, and even dessert in its diverse cultural naturalizations.

History: Dough Versus Pasta

It is vital to distinguish between two classes of pasta in order to make sense of its history. The most ancient form of pasta is flattened dough (Italian sfoglia ) from which many fresh pasta forms (with and without egg) have evolved. Cereal-derived foods, based on whole, crushed, or finely ground grains, have been common to the Mediterranean for several millennia, taking the primitive form of mush (for example, Roman puls ). Dough might be kneaded and shaped, and then fried, roasted, baked, or boiled. When it was flattened into a thin sheet and cut into strips, then boiled, a proto-pasta was created. This final step in the process appears to have created the archetypical category known today as "pasta."

Because a flour dough base is common to both pasta and bread, the histories of these foods have been merged and blurred. Although pasta may seem a simpler food, bread has held a more central place in the Mediterranean and Italian diet and worldview. Were historians to agree upon a common categorization of pasta, based on ingredients and cooking method (boiling in liquid), it might facilitate a clearer distinction between pasta and other forms of dough-based foods.


Dough for boiling evolved into a variety of shapes. The original form appears to have been string-shaped, thread-shaped, worm-shaped, or ribbon-shapedthat is, long and thin, flat or round, as the earliest terms attest. For example, Latin lásanum (earthenware pot, from Greek lásanon, three-footed pot) blended with láganum (a long strip of thin, rolled dough), whence lasagne, a plural form in standard Italian. Still today, in Neapolitan or Calabrian dialect, a rolling pin is known as a laganatura. Other terms include Latin tracta (a long piece of dough, literally, 'drawn out'), Arabic itrija (string-shaped dough, whence southern Italian trii or tria, and Spanish aletria ), Italian vermicelli, and later, spaghetti, tagliatelle, and fettuccine. Other early forms of pasta were created from small bits of rolled dough (Latin lixulae, Italian gnocco 'knuckle') or stuffed dough (ravioli ). Standard Italian maccherone and dialectal Italian maccarone (source of English "macaroni"), an early synonym of gnocco, is said to derive from the Indo-European verbal root mak- ('to knead with force', whence Italian ammaccare 'to crush', e.g., macco fava bean purée); if so, it testifies to the force required to knead and shape durum wheat dough.

But even the earliest Italian terms for pasta present wide regional variation. Indeed, Italian pasta history has been vexed, enlivened, and bedeviled by profound lexical specificity. One outwardly identical term may designate different things, historically and geographically. For instance, maccarone, from its first citation in the twelfth century, has referred to short dry pasta (twelfth century and twentieth century), long dry pasta (southern Italy, eighteenth through the twentieth centuries), long fresh pasta (regional Italian), gnocchi (fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries), and even ravioli. And it is not clear whether lasagne (lágana ), widely used by the thirteenth century, were not more like fritters (compare today's Carnival sweets, cenci, bugie, chiacchiere ) than boiled dough.

Pasta means 'paste, dough, batter' in Italian. An earlier, now obsolete, term was "alimentary paste," a loan translation from Italian pasta alimentare. Today, a lexical shift makes "pasta" the generic term for which all others stand as subsets, and "macaroni" (Italian maccarone/maccheroni ) now refers to hollow, short dry pasta, with a few exceptions surviving as regional homemade specialties in southern Italy.

Origins: East or West

Spontaneously invented forms of pasta existed simultaneously in various parts of the worldEast and Westa clear case of polygenesis. Even a cursory look at this basic starch in the food systems of China and Italy, for instance, makes this parallel development obvious. While certain similarities may be surprising (noodles tagliatelle ; wonton ravioli), the differences are no less so. Pasta is eaten by a variety of peoples but in significantly different ways.

The innovative leapand the part of pasta's history that is more closely associated with Italyis the revolution that dry pasta entailed, in conservation, economy, and diffusion. This process was established by the twelfth century in the Sicilian-Arab world. Thus, only in Italy (and a few parts of Asia) did pasta become so central to diet and cuisine, and such a diversified food. Further, Italy must be credited with pasta's global diffusion.

Historical landmark versus legend. A few landmarks mark fixed points in an otherwise fluctuating ocean of pasta history. Alongside such documentation, however, exists a substantial body of pasta mythology, the most notable involving the vexed question of Marco Polo's supposed introduction of Chinese noodles to Italy, likely attributable not to the Milione itself (which, however, mentions noodles made from the sago palm tree, enjoyed by Polo in Fanfur, likely Sumatra), but to the October 1929 issue of The Macaroni Journal (of the American Association of Pasta Makers), featuring "The Saga of Catay." This legend tells of the encounter of a sailor named "Spaghetti" with a Chinese maiden preparing a strange dish of boiled strands of dough, and of how he divulges this secret to the West. The story evidently sought to create a plausible link between the presence of noodles in China's more ancient civilization (documented during the Shang dynasty, 17001100 b.c.e.), and the predominantly Italian identity of pasta in the modern world.

Polygenesis is not a concept that is easily grasped or generally appealing. Italians had been making, consuming, even exporting pasta before Polo's return in 1292, as the earliest document, a Genovese testament predating Polo's return by at least twelve years, clearly attests. Internal evidence further suggests that Polo considered the sago variety a type of pasta, which presupposes the existence of, and familiarity with, pasta as a food. Other data confirms the parallel development of this food in the West.

Etruscan and Roman. The Etruscan tomb "La Tomba dei Rilievi," in Cerveteri, fourth century b.c.e., provides iconographic evidence: a woman in the act of rolling out dough, accompanied by familiar implements (for example, rolling pin, sack of flour, water container, knife), although it is not clear how the flattened dough might have been prepared. Horace (Satires VI, book l) mentions the comfort of his simple dish of chickpeas, leeks, and lágana, whence Salentine ciceri e tria, still eaten today; Cicero also speaks of these long strips of thin, rolled dough made with water and flour. Apicius, in De re coquinaria (book IV, chapter 2), describes lágana fried in oil and tossed with pepper and (that all-purpose Roman condiment) garum a dish of which Petronius's character, parvenu host Trimalchio (in the Satyricon ), was particularly fondand tractae (evidently dried durum pasta) for thickening broth. He also elaborates on a rich, layered lágana dish involving meats, fish, sauce, and spices.

Sicilian-Arab geographer. The first clear Italian reference to driedhence preservablepasta, and to a pasta industry, comes from Arab Sicily. In 1138, a Moroccan geographer, Abu Abdullah Muhemmed ibn Idris (known as Idrisi in Sicilian), was commissioned by Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily, to survey his kingdom. In his 1154 codex, he describes the vast fields, many mills, and farms at Tràbia (30 kilometers from Palermo), where a string-like pasta (referred to by its Arabic name, itrija ) was produced and exported in "shiploads" to Calabria, and to other parts of the Muslim and Christian worlds. The pasta was evidently dry, and a large-scale operation is being described. Although no generic term, hence no notion of pasta, existed in Arab gastronomy at this time, Arabs knew of this dried convenience foodparticularly useful for long caravan rides, and later to seafaring Genovese and Sicilian sailors. Beginning in the twelfth century, in fact, Genovese merchants became agents of Sicilian pasta's northward diffusion. By the fourteenth century, they began producing and selling vermicelli and other pasta "di Genova"so that Genoa became, after Sicily, one of the earliest production centers in Italy.

Genovese barrel of maccheroni. In the bequest of a soldier, Ponzio Bastone, written by notary Ugolino Scarpa (2 February 1279), a bariscella plena de macaronis, a small barrel of dried pasta, is listed. This earliest attestation of the term macaroni is important for three reasons: it suggests the value of the food product (for example, worthy of being listed in a will); that it was indeed dry pasta (for example, conserved in a barrel); and that it was, by this date, known as a generic term (as pasta is today).

Gastronomic utopias: Cuccagna . In the mythic land of plenty, known to the Italians as il paese di Cuccagna, and in medieval Europe as Cockaigne, there was a very peculiar mountain.The Italian version of the myth was first described by Boccaccio (Decameron, VIII, 3, Calandrino, a fool's tale). In this gastronomic utopia, which he calls Bengodi, a cauldron sits on top of a Parmigiano-cheese mountain and continuously spews forth maccheroni and ravioli that roll down the mountain's side, land in a rich capon broth, and are free for the taking by the poltroons. Such macaroni, however, were evidently synonymous with gnocchi, chestnut-sized or larger balls of flour dough (not potato), often pictured as served on a skewer. This shape accounts for the ease with which they could roll down the Cuccagna mountain.

The Maccheronic Muse

Since pasta has inspired myth, legend, literature, art, film, and graphic design, its history ought take into account historical data as much as its presence in cultural history, for it has a long oral as well as written tradition. Its creation myths have involved the noblest of gods in the Roman pantheon, emperors, and magicians; pasta miracles have promoted worthy candidates to sainthood (for example, St. William the Hermit turned dirt-filled ravioli into a delicious dish); folk narratives often feature magic (pasta) pots; traveler's tales tell of marvelous and strange pasta dishes (for example, Marco Polo); and street theater masksand actual Neapolitanshave made a public spectacle of pasta. The maccheronic muse has also inspired carnivalesque literature, theater, song, odes, proverbs, and more.

Pasta gave its name to a linguistic/literary phenomenon known as Maccheronic poetry, peaking in the fifteenth century. It was a pastiche of Latin and vernacular Italian, frequently producing a comic effect by borrowing a vernacular term that reflected the rustics, who, in turn, were referred to by the gross and simple food they ate, maccherone or gnocco (noodle-head), and who spoke no Latin, the language of culture. The most notable example of this tradition is the Maccheronic poet, Teofilo Folengo (alias Merlin Cocai), author of the mock-heroic epic Baldus, in which pasta-maker muses reside on Mount Cockaigne, and whose genius is attributed to the consumption of maccheroni and lasagne.

Eighteenth-Century Naples as Pasta Capital

Naples began to import pasta from Sicily at the end of the fifteenth century, but it was not until the eighteenth century that Neapolitans earned the title of mangiamaccheroni (macaroni-eaters)a title earlier borne by Sicilians. Naples became the emblematic capital of pasta, and the city's representative was the commedia dell'arte character, half-starved Pulcinella, who on stage was always eating or talking about macaroni. By 1785 there were 280 pasta shops in Naples. Pasta became a street food and its most devoted consumers were street peoplelazzaroni as seen in myriad popular prints of the time, where they are characteristically portrayed holding the long strands, dressed with Romano cheese, with their fingers, and at arms length sliding them, often unchewed, down the gullet. Indeed, so unique was this spectacle that it became a must-see tourist attraction, and gentlemen on the grand tour often ordered up a plate of pasta for a lazzarone, just to see it performed.

Immigrants and Pasta

Neapolitans and other southern Italians were critical to pasta's diffusion throughout the world. For it was as much immigrationand the majority of immigrants were, in fact, Neapolitan and southernas technological advances and transatlantic trade, that brought pasta to the world's attention. Along with the wave of late-nineteenth-century immigrants came shiploads of spaghetti in blue wrap (for example, Napoli Bella and Vesuvio brands), olive oil, and condensed tomato paste. Americans first considered these inedible foreign foods and tried to reform the newcomers' diet, but spaghetti won out and eventually became American, not merely ethnic, fare. Italian immigrants were to introduce many other cultures to pasta wherever they settled.

Although Thomas Jefferson, much interested in macaroni and pasta technology, brought cases of the foodstuff to America in 1786 (and later had a pasta machine shipped to him from Campania), it was not until 1848 that it began to be produced commercially in America. The World War I years and the interruption of pasta imports from overseas gave rise to an expanded pasta industry in the United States, as many Italian-American pasta importers became manufacturers, through small family operations, many of which still exist. Prohibition may have given pasta a boost as well, since it seemed a logical accompaniment to speakeasy wine. In the expanding pasta industry of the 1930s, pasta ceased to be merely Italian and became an American food.

Pasta as Emblem

Ethnic stereotyping frequently makes reference to food. Italians have long been associated with pasta, and Italians from different regions represent themselves by the type of pasta they eat. In England, from approximately 1750 to 1850, a "macaroni" referred to a foppish Englishman, a dandy, who affected foreign (Italian) style by over-dressing, wearing a preposterous wig, and perhaps eating foreign foods (for example, Yankee Doodle Dandy who "stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni" and the London gentlemen's club, The Macaroni Club). On the negative side, a cultured Italian might have referred to a simpleton or country bumpkin as a gnocco, maccarone, or spaghetto. Sicilianslater Neapolitanswere derogatorily labeled mangiamaccheroni (macaroni-eaters) by Italians farther north. Americans have referred to Italians as "Spaghetti Benders." And Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto did not help matters when it declared war on traditional foods, especially pasta, a food which, the avant-garde insisted, promoted moral and physical laxity. The ideal, evidently, was the Germanic meat-eater, a virile warrior race. Italians ignored the Futurists' cultural violence. Instead, Mussolini waged a battle on wheat (battaglia del grano ) in an attempt to make Italy wheat-sufficient. The vastly increased wheat acreage had the effect of shifting the epicenter of production northward (pasta producers included Agnesi in Oneglia, Buitoni in San Sepolcro, Barilla in Parma), thereby ending the dominance of Naples by the 1940s.

Many legendary Italian pasta-eaters have helped raise the image of this food: Rossini, Caruso, Sophia Loren. Pasta iconography, old and new, traces its presence in cultural history, from early popular prints of Cuccagna or of Neapolitan pasta-eaters, to pasta advertisements, packaging, and film (for example, Charlie Chaplin in City Lights, Disney's The Lady and the Tramp, and in Italy, Totò, Sophia Loren)all of which molded pasta's image for millions.

Commercial Pasta: From Artisan Guilds to Multinationals

From the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, pasta became well established all over Italy. Pasta makers became so numerous that they formed corporations and guilds, largely to protect their interests against competing guilds (for example, bakers). These guilds were in Florence (lasagnari ), 1337; Genoa, 1574; Savona (fidelari ), 1577; Naples (vermicellari, pastai ), 1579; Palermo, 1665; Rome, 1642.

It is in the passage to dried pasta that the quantum historic leap is achieved and pasta commerce begins, the earliest record of which goes back to medieval Arabs and Sicilians. In more recent times, increasingly efficient technology relating to the basic phases in pasta productionkneading, pressing, extruding, cutting, and dryingtogether with improved distribution networks and power sources (electricity), have led to an enormous increase in production and consumption. Indeed, by the mid-twentieth century, commercial pasta had truly become a universal food for all classes.

Large-scale pasta production first flourished in coastal areas (Palermo, Genoa, later Naples) where plenty of sun, and alternating warm and cool sea breezes allowed for outdoor dryingthe most critical part of the processand also made shipping easy. Like laundry, spaghetti was hung to dry on outdoor lines and became part of the Neapolitan folkloric milieu. Pasta brands from Gragnano and Torre Annunziata, where warm Vesuvian air and cool sea breezes created perfect drying conditions, became renowned. Once artificial drying technology was devised, however, manufacturing was freed from such climatic considerations.

Other technological milestones included mechanical kneaders, continuous feed presses, even refinements of the fork. Cesare Spadaccini of Naples invented the first mechanical kneader to replace feet (although this was not developed), as well as a four-prong shortened fork to make spaghetti twirling easier and its consumption possible at the Neapolitan court of Ferdinand II (circa 1840). But it was a spate of mostly nineteenth-century inventions that revolutionized the industry: for example, Féreol Sandragné's prototype of the "continuous" feed machine, and the "Marsigliese," a mechanical sieve that could sort crushed grain.

Early artisans' guilds and small family-run businesses have largely given way to multinational giants who count pasta manufacturing among their diversified holdings and enjoy large market shares of a lucrative, expanding global market. Some of these companies are the following: Borden (largest pasta producer in the United States, sole U.S. distributor for De Cecco since 1988, and head of an empire of small, regional companies); Philip Morris (parent company of General Foods, acquired Kraft in 1988); Nestlé (acquired Buitoni in 1988); Hershey's; Campbell's; and Lipton.


Sicily and southern Italyancient Rome's, then Italy's, breadbasketwas an early source of durum wheat for Italian pasta, which, since 1967, has been the only legally mandated grain allowed for this food. While Italians came to produce and consume the world's largest quantities of pasta outside Asia (over fifty pounds per capita in 1988), Italy's capacity to produce wheat was easily overwhelmed. In the nineteenth century, other sources were added. Genovese merchants imported the best Kubanka wheat (up to 19 percent protein), grown in the fertile black earth of Taganrog, Crimea, on the Black Sea. But famines, revolution, and genocide had destroyed this mythic Russian wheat by the 1920s and 1930s, apparently forever. North American wheat from Manitoba and North Dakota filled the vacuum. American durum wheat productionwhich, in turn, boosted the American pasta industrywas largely due to the efforts of one man. Mark Carleton, an agronomist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and an expert in plant pathology, went to Russia in 1898 looking for rust-resistant wheat and, upon returning, converted farmers, milling companies, chemists, and hotel and restaurant cooks to accept durum wheat.

Pasta Typology: Cutting the Linguistic Dough

Estimates of the number of pasta shapes range from 600 to 1000. Pasta atlases are only recently beginning to appear. The sheer volume of regional, traditional, and also industrial and historical typesalthough only a fraction of them remain in common usemakes this task a daunting one. Some of the earliest terms refer to length and thinness, for example: Arabic itrija and sev or seviyan (from Hindi sevika 'thread'), Italian vermicelli ('small worms', originally, finger-length), and later, Italian spaghetti (from spago 'string'). Other terms refer to the dough and to shaping techniques that involve cutting (Italian tagliatelle, from tagliare 'to cut'), rolling, or stamping. Greatest variation occurs in commercial, not homemade pasta, for the obvious reason that industrial dies have made such innovations possible.

A raviolo by other names. The language of pasta (as of music) is Italian. Much of its rich lexicon is attributable to the richness of the Italian language itself. There are suffixes, given in their plural forms here, that can reduce its dimensions (-elli, -etti, -ini, -otti, as in ravioli/ravioletti and tortelli/tortellini ), or increase its dimensions (-oni, as in ravioloni, tortelloni ), or subtly grade it by increasing width (tagliolini fettuccine tagliatelle pappardelle lasagne ). There is also rich regional variation. For example, the case for filled pasta (of which Emilia-Romagna is the heartland) is known as casoncelli (cansonsei ) in Berg-amo, tortelli in Emilia-Romagna, agnolotti in Piedmont, pansoti in Liguria, cappelletti or ravioli in central Italy. As for the most common homemade ribbon-shaped egg pasta, tagliatelle are also known (with slight variation in size) as fettuccine, lasagnette, trenette.

Still today, a marked distinction exists between eggbased fresh pasta, a special, often festive food, and dried commercial pasta, daily fare. But Italians also divide pasta as follows: pasta in clear broth (pastina in brodo ); pasta in heartier vegetable soup (minestra, whence minestrone ); dried pasta drained and served with a sauce (pasta asciutta ); and baked pasta (pasta al forno : for example, lasagne, timballo, pasticcio ).

Pasta typologies might further be ordered according to varying criteria: method or place of preparation (home, restaurant, factory); grain type (soft, durum, whole, alternative); calendrical occurrences (festive versus penitent pasta, for example, with and without meat sauce or eggs); Italian versus non-Italian or emigrant pasta (for example, Italian-American spaghetti and meatballs); and finally, pasta morphology. Pasta can even be classified according to consumer profile, age, cultural background, and health concerns. For instance, adult pasta differs from children's varieties: there is Italian nursery food, pastina in brodo (tiny pasta in clear broth); American macaroni and cheese and canned dinosaur or alphabet pasta; and pasta on toast for the British. Special pastas have been developed for the wheat intolerant; and gourmet pastas are aimed at the high-end market. Homemade pasta can be further classified according to the instrument used: rolling pin versus pasta maker or small press (for example, a torchietto for extruding bigoli in the Veneto); a "comb" or pettine (for example, for garganelli in Romagna); a zither-like instrument, known as a chitarra (guitar), over which thin dough is stretched and rolled to produce thin strands (for example, for tonnarelli, resembling square spaghetti, in the Abruzzo); a long metal rod or ferro (for long maccheroni in Calabria, Puglia, Sicily).

Then there is morphologylong versus short, smooth versus ribbed, hollow versus filled, straight versus fluted. The myriad shapes draw on many semantic areashuman, natural, and even divine. There are helixes, tubes, shells, pearls, nests, worms, butterflies, snails, birds, stars, moons, waves, threads, ribbons, bowties, even "priest-stranglers" (strozza -or strangolapreti ). Paternosters and avemarias (resembling rosary beads), and other shapes inspired by politics (garibaldini, mafalde, tripoline, assabesi, abissini ), are no longer made. But innovation continues, even though some shapes prove to be mere fads (for example, radiators, UFOs).

Matching pasta to sauce, determining pasta to sauce ratio, and knowing the correct cooking time are subtle areas of pasta connoisseurship, traditional for Italians but learned by others (although traditional canons are shifting even in Italy). In a fifteenth-century cookbook, De honesta voluptate ac valetudine (Of honest pleasure and well-being), Bartolomeo Sacchi (pseudonym Plàtina) cautioned that pasta should be cooked "for as long as it takes to say three paternosters"a short amount of time, even for fresh pasta.


Pasta trends take place within wider social and nutritional contexts. There has been a move toward whole foods and alternative grains such as corn, buckwheat, and spelt. Innovative ingredientssome restaurant-driveninclude colored pasta (tomato, herb, beet, mushroom, shrimp, even chocolate) and novelty-stuffed pasta (seafood, artichoke, dried tomato). There has also been a trend toward fusion cuisines, for example, blending East and West. New health guidelines advise lower fat, higher fiber, increased vegetarianism, less processing. The American trend toward greater convenience favors ready-cooked, frozen, microwaveable, and cold-serve pastas, although the Slow Food movement is beginning to counter this trend in the new millennium. Americans are becoming more sophisticated in regard to better quality products, taste, nutritional value, authenticity, seasonality, and the artisan tradition.

Nutritional Value: Fat or Skinny?

Pasta's fortunes have fluctuated over its long history: it has been considered both a luxury food (in the sixteenth century, Neapolitan authorities prohibited its consumption in times of famine or scarcity of wheat) and a vernacular staple. Commonly perceived as a poor man's food at the beginning of the twentieth century, pasta began, with the support of nutritionists extolling the virtues of the Mediterranean diet in the 1970s, to experience a rehabilitation. New nutrition guidelines (and the food chart reformulated in the 1990s) recommend less protein, less saturated animal fat, more fiber, and more complex carbohydrates. Pasta, therefore, is now recognized to be a healthy food. It is also a highly versatile, immediately satisfying food, recommended for athletes ("carbo-loading" sustains energy before strenuous sports) and even for refined palates.

Vegetables, lean meats, or fish, combined with good quality (even enriched or whole wheat) pasta, makes an excellent, balanced meal. Components of pasta include moisture (water), energy, protein, fat, carbohydrates, and ash. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletin (1981), nutrient values for one cup of spaghetti (two ounces uncooked) are approximately seven to fourteen grams of protein, thirty-nine grams of carbohydrates, and when enriched, it provides calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. The caloric value of one cup of cooked pasta is approximately 190 calories (if al dente ) and 155 (if tender).

See also China ; Italy ; Noodle in Asia ; Noodle in Northern Europe ; Wheat .


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Luisa Del Giudice


views updated May 29 2018



Pasta is a universally enjoyed food, and almost every country serves a type of noodle. In China, it is mein; Japan, udon; Poland, pierogi; Germany, spaetzle. The popularity of pasta can be attributed to several factors: it is easily manufactured, it takes up little storage space, it is easy to cook, and it is rich in complex carbohydrates.

Ancient Etruscan meals of gruel and porridge were eventually replaced with more appetizing unleavened bread cakes. Food historians believe these cakes may have been the precursor to pasta. Opinions about where the noodle originated vary. The Italian explorer Marco Polo has been commonly credited with bringing the noodle back to Italy from his travels in the Orient during the 1300s. However, some contend that a close examination of Polo's papers reveals that he reported enjoying a certain type of noodle in China, comparing it favorably to the pasta he was accustomed to eating in Italy.

Nevertheless, it is true that Chinese noodles have been around for centuries. The vermicelli-like transparent noodles are made from the paste of germinated mung beans and are usually soaked in water before they are boiled or fried. (Pasta has not always been prepared by boiling. In fact, boiled noodles were once considered a relatively bland meal. Frying or grilling were the preferred preparations.) Koreans claim to have taught the Japanese how to make soba noodles in the 12th century, using Chinese buckwheat grown in the northern regions where rice paddies could not survive.

Early French writers also mention a dish called pastillum, essentially a ravioli-like pouch filled with meat. However, the Italians have staked the claim so vehemently that today we generally think of pasta dishes as Italian in origin. In fact, the word "pasta" comes from the Italian phrase "paste (dough) alimentari (relating to nourishment)."

The first industrial production of pasta occurred in Naples in the early 15th century. The site was chosen for its naturally fluctuating temperatures, sometimes as much as four times a day, which provided the hot and cold temperatures necessary for drying. Mechanical drying was not invented until 1800.

Raw Materials

Pasta is made from a mixture of water and semolina flour. Semolina is a coarse-ground flour from the heart, or endosperm, of durum wheat, an amber-colored high protein hard wheat that is grown specifically for the manufacture of pasta. With a lower starch content and a higher protein content than all-purpose flours, semolina flour is easily digested. Farina, rougher granulations of other high-quality hard wheat, is also used to make some pastas. The semolina and farina flour are enriched with B-vitamins and iron before they are shipped to pasta plants.

Eggs are sometimes added to the mixture for color or richness. Federal guidelines stipulate that egg noodles contain a minimum of 5.5% egg solids. Vegetable juices, such as spinach, beet, tomato, and carrot, can also be added for color and taste. In recent years, the addition of herbs and spices such as garlic, basil, and thyme has become popular.

The Manufacturing

Mixing and kneading

  • 1 The semolina is stored in giant silos that can hold up to 150,000 pounds (68,100 kg). Pipes move the flour to a mixing machine equipped with rotating blades. Warm water is also piped into the mixing machine. The mixture is kneaded to a lumpy consistency.

Flavoring and coloring

  • 2 Eggs are added to the mixture if the product is an egg noodle. If pasta is to be a flavored variety, vegetable juices are added here. A tomato or beet mixture is added for red pasta, spinach for green pasta, carrots for orange pasta. Herbs and spices can also be folded in for additional flavoring.


  • 3 The mixture moves to a laminator where it is pressed into sheets by large cylinders. A vacuum mixer-machine further flattens the dough while pressing air bubbles and excess water from the dough to reach the optimum water content of 12%.


  • 4 The roll of dough moves through a steamer, which heats the dough to 220°F (104°C) in order to kill any existing bacteria.


  • 5 Depending on the type of noodle to be produced, the dough is either cut or pushed through dies. Ribbon and string-style pastasuch as fettucine, linguine, spaghetti, and capellini (angel hair)are cut by rotating blades. To make tube or shell-shaped pasta such as rigatoni, ziti, elbow macaroni, and fusilli, the dough is fed into an extruder which then pushes it through metal dies. The size and shape of the holes in the die determine the type of pasta.

    To make vermicelli and capellini, the pasta dough is pushed through holes between 0.8-0.5 mm in diameter. The cutting machine then cuts the pasta into lengths of 10 inches (250 mm) and twists it into curls. Spaghetti ranges from 1.5-2.5 mm in diameter and is left straight.

    Tortellini (filled pasta rings) are made on a separate machine. The machine cuts small circles from a roll of dough. A bucket of ricotta cheese mixture drops a pre-measured amount of cheese onto the circle of dough. The dough is then folded over and the two ends are joined to form a circle.

    To make ravioli (filled pasta squares), premeasured quantities of cheese filling are dropped by machine at pre-measured intervals on a sheet of pasta. Another sheet of pasta is placed over this sheet as it moves along a conveyer belt. The two layers then pass under a cutting machine that perforates the pasta into pre-measured squares.


  • 6 The pasta is placed in a drying tank in which heat, moisture, and drying time are strictly regulated. The drying period differs for the various types of pasta. It can range from three hours for elbow macaroni and egg noodles to as much as 12 hours for spaghetti. The drying time is critical because if the pasta is dried too quickly it will break and if it is dried too slowly, the chance for spoilage increases. The oxygen level in the tank is also regulated, and lab technicians test frequently for salmonella and other bacteria.

    Careful handling of the pasta during the drying period is also crucial. Spaghetti is the most fragile of the noodles and is therefore hung high above the floor.


  • 7 Fresh pasta is folded in pre-measured amounts into clear plastic containers. As the containers move along a conveyer belt, a plastic sheet covers each container and is sealed with a hot press. At the same time, a small tube sucks the air of the container and replaces it with a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen to prolong the product's shelf-life. Labels listing the type of noodle, nutritional information, cooking instructions, and expiration date are attached to the top of the containers.

    Dried pasta is loaded, either manually or by machine, into stainless steel buckets (usually of heavy gauge type 304) which move along a conveyer belt to the appropriate packaging station. The pasta is measured by machine into pre-printed boxes, which also list the type of noodle, ingredients, preparation, and expiration date. Again, careful handling is important. For example, because lasagna noodles are particularly fragile, workers place them on metal slides that ease the pasta into boxes. The boxes are then sealed by machine.

    Conveying system can be constructed in "S," "C," or "Z" configurations, or as horizontal conveyer belts. These systems move the pasta up and down and across the plant at heights up to 10 feet (3 m). Workers at the floor-level stations monitor the packaging process. The mechanism allows for workers to package the pasta manually if necessary.

Quality Control

The manufacturing of pasta is subject to strict federal regulations for food production. Federal inspectors schedule regular visits to insure that the company is adhering to goverrnment laws. In addition, each company sets its own standards for quality, some of which are set in practice before the pasta reaches the plant. Lab technicians test the semolina flour for color, texture, and purity before it is removed from rail cars. Protein and moisture content are measured and monitored on sophisticated quality control computer software.

In the plant, technicians constantly test the pasta for elasticity, texture, taste, and tolerance to overcooking. Plant workers are required to wear haimets and plastic gloves. Mixing machines are scrupulously cleaned after each batch of pasta passes through them. The drying process is strictly monitored to guard against spoilage.

Homemade Pasta

The popularity of pasta has spread to the home-cooking arena. Pasta-rolling machines and pasta cookbooks are available at house-wares stores and in cooks' catalogs. The recipe for homemade pasta is similar to the industrial process with the exception that eggs are generally used in all home pasta recipes. Sometimes oil is added to the mixture, particularly if a lesser grade of flour is used.

The flour is measured out onto a wooden or marble surface and formed into a mound with a well in the center. Eggs, water, oil and any other desired ingredients are poured into the well and mixed lightly with a fork. Then, beginning from the outside of the mound, the flour is incorporated into the center.

The dough is kneaded for approximately five minutes until a smooth, elastic ball is achieved. Rolling the dough into sheets is done with a long Italian-style rolling pin or with a rolling machine. Most rolling machines have attachments for cutting the dough into various forms of pasta such as spaghetti, fettucine, lasagna, or ravioli. The dough can also be cut by hand using a sharp knife or rolling blade. Specially marked rolling pins that imprint squares on the dough or ravioli trays can be used for making stuffed pasta. Extrusion machines for making tube-style pasta such as rigatoni or fusilli can also be purchased for home use.

The Future

Pasta continues to increase in popularity. The National Pasta Foods Association estimates that the average American will eat more than 29 pounds (13 kg) of pasta each year by the turn of the century. Highly rated for its nutritional value, pasta is an ideal meal for people who are paying more attention to their dietary intake. In addition, people are finding less time to prepare meals, and pasta is easily made.

Pasta manufacturers are responding to this demand by introducing a wide variety of dried and fresh pastas. One recent innovation is no-boil pasta that is partially cooked at the plant, making this already easy-to-prepare food even simpler to bring to the table at mealtime. New lines of fat- and cholesterol-free ravioli are on the market as well as organically-grown pasta products. Two new grains, South American quinoa and Egyptian kamut, are being used to make wheat-free pasta.

Where To Learn More


Bugialli, Guiliano. Bugialli on Pasta. Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. A History of Food. (Translated from the French by Anthea Bell). Blackwell Publishers, 1992.


Bannon, Lisa. "Italians Do Still Eat Oodles of Noodles, But Trend Is Limp." Wall Street Journal, May 10, 1994, p. Al.

"What Is Pasta?" Borden, Inc., 1994.

"Custom-Manufactured Pasta." Food Engineering, January 1991, p. 71.

Giese, James. "Pasta: New Twists on an Old Product." Food Technology, February 1992, p. 118-26.

McMath, Robert. "Pasta's New World Order." Adweek's Marketing Week, November 25, 1991, p. 26

Mary F. McNulty


views updated May 11 2018

pasta Dried dough, traditionally made with hard wheat (semolina) but soft wheat may be added, sometimes with egg and milk. Spinach or tomato may be added to the dough to give a green or red colour. The dough is partly dried in hot air, then more slowly. Sold both completely dry, when it can be stored for a long period, or ‘fresh’, i.e. less dried and keeping for a week or so only. A 230‐g portion (boiled) is a good source of copper; a source of protein; contains 4.6 g of dietary fibre and 0.7 g of fat of which 33% is saturated; supplies 280 kcal (1180 kJ).

It is made in numerous shapes: spaghetti is a solid rod about 2 mm in diameter; vermicelli is about one‐third this thickness; ravioli (envelopes stuffed with meat or cheese), fettucine, and linguini (ribbons), and a range of twists, spirals, and other shapes. Macaroni is tubular shaped, about 5 mm in diameter; at 10 mm it is known as zitoni, and at 15 mm fovantini or maccaroncelli. Cannelloni are tubes 1.5–2 cm wide and 10 cm long, stuffed with meat; penne are nib‐shaped. Lasagne is sheets of pasta. Farfals are ground, granulated, or shredded.


views updated May 29 2018

pas·ta / ˈpästə/ • n. a dish originally from Italy consisting of dough made from durum wheat and water, extruded or stamped into various shapes and typically cooked in boiling water.


views updated May 18 2018

pasta Food, high in carbohydrate, made from semolina, which is derived from durum wheat. Traditionally associated with Italian cooking, it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.