I’m going on a pasta journey to discover Italy’s cuisine.
Italy’s culinary diversity has always surprised me. I learned about it back in Italian classes in college before I’d studied abroad. “Every region has its own traditions and dishes,” our professor said. I understood her words, but I didn’t fully comprehend her meaning until I started living in Italy.
That’s because I was comparing Italian food to dishes in the U.S.—how some are more popular in certain states than others. There’s gumbo or jambalaya in the Creole south, clam chowder from New England, pepperoni rolls from West Virginia. I still have a beautifully illustrated cookbook, a garage sale steal at 50 cents, called America, the Beautiful with different dishes from distinct areas of the U.S.
Thinking back to my own country’s different culinary traditions, I sort of understood Italy’s. I mean, some people have never heard of pepperoni rolls. But it’s not the same. Italy is an old land and a young country. It has been inhabited by civilizations since before the Ancient Romans, with the Etruscans and Celts; it has been a unified country only since 1861. And it’s not a neat, round, contained shape, but famously a long boot. Along the peninsula, many different city-states were ruled by local lords or extensive royal families, and they existed independently of areas farther up or down the land—like, fiercely independently. They considered themselves individual nations and warred frequently. Different customs, languages, and foods developed many cultures.
Today under a unified Italy, dialects and accents remain, as do different dishes and food traditions. Someone from Piemonte has likely never tasted all the regional specialties of Calabria, and vice versa (unless they’ve gone on a foodie vacation). It’s not like jambalaya, which I’ve eaten numerous times though I’ve never been to Louisiana. There are entire regional Italian menus that, beyond never tasting, “non-natives” have never heard of nor would even understand what it was in dialect.
Something that connects all Italian regions is, of course, pasta. And pasta dishes retain the regions’ culinary diversity. The origins of pasta itself are contested. According to the International Pasta Organisation (“a non-profit Association dedicated to increase pasta consumption and awareness” based in Rome), pasta dates back to the ancient Etruscans, who mixed different ground grains with water and cooked the food to make a sort of pasta. Other theories point to the 13th century with Marco Polo, who claims to have brought it back from China in 1271. It’s actually probable that several cultures developed something similar to pasta simultaneously (you can check out their site for different theories).
So I’ve decided to go on a pasta journey. I want to learn about pastas I’ve never tasted and the history behind them, and I want a whole arsenal of recipes that work in any situation, that satisfy my cravings or fill anyone’s request.
Another thing: I’ll start from tradition, but if need be, I’ll put my own spin on it until I find the way I like it best. I’ll also put in a “non-classics” section, because food is, if anything, flexible and creative.
A few things to note about pasta dishes: the shape is not a casual choice. Certain shapes go with specific recipes and come from different areas (orecchiette with Puglia, or trofie from Liguria). Pasta is also the main player in a dish. If you cook it al dente and buy the good, durum wheat kind (semola di grano duro)—bronze cut, if you can find it—then you’ll see why. The sauce accompanies the pasta, not the other way around.
The recommended serving per person with durum wheat pasta is 80 grams (2.8 oz); fresh egg pasta at 120 grams (4.2 oz). The real recommended serving for hungry people is around 100 and 150 grams (3.5 and 5.3 oz). This way, people can have seconds without feeling bad about taking the last serving.
I’ll start listing the recipes below that I make by region. I was going to create a checklist, but I just took a look at Il Cucchiaio d’Argento’s regional dishes and have found, unsurprisingly (yet I can’t believe I’ve never heard of them), dozens of recipes I’ve never had. The checklist will come later.
And here’s a fun infographic from Carla Ruggiero on crochetta.net, with even more types of pasta—never mind the recipe that goes with it—that I’ve never even heard of before (click to see the original).
Pasta recipes by region:
Cover photo from Robert S. Donovan, Creative Commons