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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.