Ten surprising pasta facts in honour of Italy’s favourite food

Happy World Pasta Day! Tuck in to few things you might not know about Italy's best-loved export.

Ten surprising pasta facts in honour of Italy’s favourite food
Happy World Pasta Day. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Why do Italians love pasta? There are too many reasons to count.

So instead, we’ll share with you a few things you might not know about Italy’s best-loved export. 

Italians used to eat pasta with a spike

Forget the fork and spoon debate: in the Middle Ages, Italians would have been shocked to see diners using anything except a wooden spike to twirl up their noodles.

The instrument was known as a punteruolo and was gradually replaced by the fork as Italians realised that three spikes were better than one.

READ ALSO: How to decipher Italy’s mind-boggling pasta menus

The fork’s practicality for eating pasta is believed to be a factor in why Italy adopted the cutlery earlier and more enthusiastically than most other countries in Europe.

Naples is the perfect place to make pasta

Campania, the region of southern Italy around Naples, has arguably the world’s best climate for making pasta.

Its rich soil and warm weather helps durum wheat to grow year round, while the combination of cool, dry breezes from the sea and hot, wet winds from Mount Vesuvius provide the perfect conditions to dry pasta slowly – but not too slowly – in the open air.

Photo: Mark Notari/Flickr

Today the region produces Italy’s first protected pasta: pasta di Gragnano, made from local wheat and soft spring water from Mount Lattari using traditional techniques. The pasta is considered so unique that the European Union granted it “protected geographical indication” status in 2013.

Italy’s first pasta factory was in Venice

Artisanal pasta-making may have flourished in southern Italy, but the first pasta factory was in the north. In 1740 Venice authorized Paolo Adami of Genova to open a pasta factory there.

The licence stipulated that he would teach Venetian apprentices the secrets of fine pasta because, other than Neapolitans, the Genovese were considered Italy’s pasta kings.

We eat 13 million tonnes of pasta a year

The world spent $23 billion on pasta in 2016, according to market research by Euromonitor. That bought us some 13 million tonnes of the stuff.

Italy is the world’s biggest market, followed by the United States. But guess who buys the most pasta after them?

Russia. So popular is pasta becoming there that Euromonitor predicts Russia’s appetite could eventually overtake Americans’.

Photo: Danil Semyonov/AFP

There’s a science to the shapes

The multitude of shapes that pasta comes in, around 600 at the latest count, aren’t just to look pretty.

There are some pretty strict rules about which shape best suits to which dish.


Each shape has something it’s especially good at: long, thin pasta sweeps up thinner sauces; thick noodles balance out rich, meaty ones; short, hollow pastas are perfect for when you want to pick up a mouthful of pasta, a scoop of sauce and chunks of meat or veg at the same time; while the smallest ones add just the right bite to a bowl of soup.

So don’t even think about pairing spaghetti with a chunky vegetable sauce, for instance. And why would you ever – ever – use tiny ditalini in anything except a soup?

Casanova wrote odes to macaroni

Giacomo Casanova was an eater as well as a lover. In his 19th-century autobiography, he tells the story of travelling to Chiogga, near his native Venice, and encountering a “macaronic academy”: a club for poets who would compete to compose verses in praise of… macaroni.

In his account, Casanova reels off ten stanzas and is immediately made a member. He then impresses the poets further by eating so much pasta at a club picnic that they name him the “prince” of macaroni.

What rhymes with macaroni? Unfortunately, Casanova didn’t record his pasta poem.

There was once a 25-metre lasagna

The world’s largest lasagna on record is a 25 by 2.5 metre behemoth baked in Poland. It required 2,500 kilograms of pasta, 800 kilos of mince, 500 litres of tomato sauce and 400 kilos of cheese.

A supermarket in the town of Wieliczka made the record-breaking lasagna in June 2012 in honour of the Italian national football team, who stayed there throughout the Euro 2012 championship.

You can eat it sweet

… and we’re not even talking about novelty chocolate pasta. There are many established pasta desserts that won’t get you sniffed at by an Italian.

Photo: julianna/DepositPhotos.

How about fried angel hair topped with honey and pistachios? Or almond ravioli stuffed with ricotta and orange zest?

And if you do get any complaints from pasta purists, you can politely inform them that in Renaissance Italy, pasta was commonly served with sugar, cinnamon and soft cheese.

Pasta was once blamed for all of Italy’s woes

One of the strangest episodes in pasta history occurred in the early 1930s, when a collective of Italian thinkers and artists declared war on Italy’s favourite food.

Pasta is “an absurd Italian gastronomic religion”, wrote the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and eating it causes “pessimism, nostalgic inactivity and neutralism”.

No spaghetti for Marinetti. Photo: Manifesto of Futurism via Wikimedia Commons.

According to author Marco Ramperti, a fellow member of the Futurist movement, “spaghetti poisons us” and “our thoughts wind round each other, get mixed up and tangled like the vermicelli we have taken in”.

The Futurists recommended eating rice instead. Needless to say, Italians didn’t listen: outraged citizens, politicians and pasta makers wrote to Marinetti to protest.

Pasta keeps you thin, saves you from heart attacks and makes you happy

Various health benefits have been attributed to pasta over the years, more or less convincingly.

Italian researchers found convincing evidence that people who eat a lot of pasta are less likely to be overweight, which they attribute to its part in the famous Mediterranean diet of fresh vegetables and olive oil.

Photo: ViewApart/DepositPhotos.

Another study showed that eating barley pasta could help to make the heart more resilient to heart attacks.

And many nutritionists claim that eating carbohydrates such as pasta increases levels of serotonin, the body’s happiness chemical.

In any case, what’s indisputable is that pasta-guzzling Italians live longer than almost anyone else. That’s good enough for us.  


Italian pastries: Is it a cornetto, croissant or brioche?

The classic Italian breakfast is loved across the country - but what should you call the pastry you order with your cappuccino? Here's why the name seems to change depending on where you are, and what the difference actually is.

Italian pastries: Is it a cornetto, croissant or brioche?

There are plenty of differences between Italy’s northern and southern regions, and one you might have noticed is that the daily breakfast pastry served (and quickly devoured) along with a frothy cappuccino at the local bar-pasticceria might have a different name depending on where you go.

READ ALSO: Where, when and how to drink coffee like an Italian

Most people will probably know it as a cornetto, which is something many visitors to Italy mistake for a croissant.

Google translates cornetto as croissant most of the time, which doesn’t help matters. And Italians themselves might even call it a croissant (pronounced ‘crassant’) if ordering at a fancier type of pasticceria, when they’re feeling a bit fancy themselves. 

Meanwhile, some bars and bakeries advertise a brioche. But can it be a brioche if it’s shaped like a cornetto? Is there always a difference, or just sometimes? And does it really matter what you call it?

Let’s have a look at what’s going on.

North vs south

Generally speaking, a cornetto is called a cornetto in the centre and south of Italy, while the exact same pastry is usually referred to as a brioche in northern regions.

In fact, some northern Italians may tell you they’ve never heard anyone order a cornetto.

According to popular Italian food blog Dissapore“In Italy it is called brioche in the north and cornetto in the centre-south: a cultural heritage that has little to do with the actual characteristics of these sweets.”

“Italy seems to be the undisputed homeland of the binomial ‘cappuccino and cornetto/brioche,’” it notes.

Alessandro Pirollo, a writer at Italy’s esteemed food magazine La Cucina Italiana, goes a step further by saying: “calling [a cornetto] a brioche is just an improper use of the term, widespread in northern Italy.”

“True brioche is different from a cornetto, but be warned: neither one is a croissant,” he writes.

Shape, texture and ingredients

Each pastry has a long and disputed history, and their ingredients differ.

Croissants are known for their buttery flavour, which comes through because of the absence of egg in the mixture, explains Pirollo. This also accounts for its “flakier, lighter” texture.

“The brioche and cornetto have more in common from this point of view,” says Dissapore.

“The same ingredients but different methods, as the brioche is leavened and the cornetto is layered with butter. They both contain flour, a lot of butter, a lot of sugar, yeast, eggs and milk.”

For the brioche, notes Dissapore, “lard may also be used instead of butter”.

To muddy the waters further, in many parts of the south cornetti are also made using lard (strutto) instead of butter. (In fact, quite a few southern Italian pastries are made using lard, including more traditional versions of the pasticciotto and sfogliatella.)

The texture and shape of the pastry is probably the easiest way to tell them apart.

The brioche is soft and airy with a rounded shape, often topped with a ball of dough. In Sicily this is called a brioche col tuppo and it’s often served either filled with or soaked in granita or gelato.

A cornetto and a croissant may be fairly similar in appearance, at least to the untrained eye, but the cornetto is usually straighter while a croissant is curled.

Cornetti are also crunchier, less sweet, and can be eaten plain, though you’ll often find them served already filled with chocolate, cream, or jam.

READ ALSO: French dilemmas: Is it a pain au chocolat or a chocolatine?

Usually, at least in France, croissants are not filled with cream or chocolate.

Cornetti for sale in Naples. Photo by Nicole Arango Lang on Unsplash

There are countless articles and blog posts written in Italian on the cornetto vs brioche vs croissant debate, which suggests that there’s widespread confusion about the differences even among Italians themselves.

The north-south debate over what to call the standard Italian breakfast pastry is also frequently the subject of jokes on Italian social media.

Whatever you call it, another important north-south difference is that in the south, hot cornetti, invariably made using lard, are not only eaten for breakfast but also served up to hungry customers as a late-night snack – meaning it’s not unusual to see long queues outside of bakeries at 1am on summer nights everywhere from Bari to Rome.

Meanwhile in the north of Italy, breakfast is the only time you’ll see anyone eating a cornetto. Or should that be brioche?