Pasta

An inquiry into a few fundamental questions: How did spaghetti and meatballs, a dish no Italian recognizes, become so popular here? What makes some brands of pasta much better than others? What's so special about fresh pasta? What do Italians know about cooking pasta that Americans don't?
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Where It Came From and How It Got Here

The idea that Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy is as congenial to Italians as the idea that the hamburger came from Germany is to Americans. No one disputes that the Chinese have made pasta, from many more kinds of flour than Europeans have, since at least 1100 B.C. Italians insist as a point of national pride that they invented pasta in their part of the world, despite considerable evidence that they did not. They cite as proof a set of reliefs on an Etruscan tomb dating from the fourth century BC, which depict a knife, a board with a raised edge that resembles a modern pasta board, a flour sack, and a pin that they say was made of iron and used for shaping tubular pasta. The Museum of the History of Spaghetti, owned by Agnesi, a pasta manufacturer near Turin, makes much of these reliefs, as do most histories of pasta—including the standard one, Anna del Conte's Portrait of Pasta. The reliefs do not persuade the American historian Charles Perry, who has written several articles on the origins of pasta. "There are plenty of things to do with a pin besides shape pasta," he says. In fact, Perry says, no sure Roman reference to a noodle of any kind, tubular or flat, has turned up, and that makes the Etruscan theory even more unlikely, given that the Romans dominated Italy soon after the Etruscans did.

The first clear Western reference to boiled noodles, Perry says, is in the Jerusalem Talmud of the fifth century A.D., written in Aramaic. The authors debated whether or not noodles violated Jewish dietary laws. (Today only noodles made of matzoh meal are kosher for Passover.) They used the word itriyah, thought by some scholars to derive from the Greek itrion, which referred to a kind of flatbread used in religious ceremonies. By the tenth century, it appears, itriyah in many Arabic sources referred to dried noodles bought from a vendor, as opposed to fresh ones made at home. Other Arabic sources of the time refer to fresh noodles as lakhsha, a Persian word that was the basis for words in Russian, Hungarian, and Yiddish. (By comparison with these words, noodle, which dates from sixteenth-century German, originated yesterday.) In the twelfth century an Arab geographer, commissioned by the Norman king of Sicily to write a sort of travel book about the island, reported seeing pasta being made. The geographer called it itriyah, from which seems to have come trii, which is still the word for spaghetti in some parts of Sicily and is also current in the name for a dish made all over Italy—ciceri e trii, pasta and chick-pea soup. The soup reflects the original use for pasta, which was as an extender in soups and sometimes desserts. Serving pasta as a dish in itself with a bit of sauce does seem to be an Italian rather than a Greek, Persian, or Arab invention. (Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, a wonderful book by Edda Servi Machlin, has delicious pasta recipes that show some of the many influences that the Arab world had on Italian food.)

Even if pasta is not quite as old as the Italians would like, it has been securely documented in Italy before 1295, when Marco Polo returned from China. In 1279 a basket of dried pasta was recorded in the estate inventory of a Genoese soldier, indicating that it was considered valuable. The word used was macaronis, a word whose derivation historians fight over. The one usually given is makar, the Greek for "blessed," as in sacramental food. In Italy today maccheroni refers to tubular dried pasta; in America macaroni is synonymous with "elbows" to the public but not to many manufacturers, who use it to refer to any dried pasta made of just flour and water. Manufacturers use noodle to refer to a dough with egg, which can be sold fresh or dried. Spaghetti, which means "little strings," is often used generically, for dried pasta without egg. Marco Polo spoke of lasagne, which then meant "noodles," to describe what he saw, which indicates that he was already familiar with the food anyway.

The Marco Polo myth has refused to die. Italians accuse Americans of promulgating it, beginning with an influential article in a 1929 issue of Macaroni Journal (now Pasta Journal), an American trade magazine, which has inspired countless advertisements, restaurant placemats, cookbooks, and even movies. (From 1919 on, Macaroni Journal occasionally published articles purporting to give the history of pasta, usually—though not always—labeling the less plausible ones as lore. The 1929 story began, "Legend has it . . .") In the 1938 film The Adventures of Marco Polo, Gary Cooper points to a bowl of noodles and asks a Chinese man what he calls them. "In our language," the man replies, "we call them spa get."

In the centuries after Marco Polo's voyage pasta continued to be a luxury in Italy. By 1400 it was being produced commercially, in shops that retained night watchmen to protect the goods. The vermicelli, as dried pasta was known, was kneaded by foot: men trod on dough to make it malleable enough to roll out. The treading could last for a day. The dough then had to be extruded through pierced dies under great pressure, a task accomplished by a large screw press powered by two men or one horse.

This somewhat gamy procedure was not used for other kinds of dough, but commercial pasta dough has never been normal dough. The flour used to make it—semolina—is granular, like sugar, and has a warm golden color. Semolina makes a straw-colored dough that must be kneaded for a long time, which is why it has always been far more common in commercial than in homemade pasta. Semolina is milled from durum wheat (Triticum durum; durum means "hard"), a much harder grain than common wheat (Triticum vulgarum), which is used to make ordinary flour. (The harder the grain, the more energy required to mill it.) All durum makes firmer cooked pasta than common flour does, but not all durum is alike in hardness or quality. The kind of durum milled into semolina and how a manufacturer makes and dries the dough determine the firmness of the pasta when it is cooked.

Durum wheat was suited to the soil and weather of Sicily and Campania, the region around Naples, and so the pasta industry developed there, in the eighteenth century, and led Italian production into this century. Naples had a perfect climate for drying pasta. The alternation of mild sea breezes and hot winds from Mount Vesuvius ensured that the pasta would not dry too slowly, and thus become moldy, or too fast, and thus crack or break. The number of pasta shops in Naples went from sixty to 280 between the years 1700 and 1785. Young English aristocrats making the grand tour in the eighteenth century were shown the city where pasta hung everywhere to dry—in the streets, on balconies, on roofs. Neapolitan street vendors sold cooked spaghetti from stalls with charcoal-fired stoves, working with bowls of grated Romano cheese beside them. Customers would follow the example of the barkers, who lifted the long strands high and dropped them into their mouths. The grand tourists assumed that the fork hadn't yet caught on in Italy, whereas it was the Venetians who in the sixteenth century had introduced the fork to Europe.

Englishmen went home full of Italy, and became known as macaronis for their foreign affectations. In the mid-eighteenth century macaroni referred to an overblown hairstyle as well as to the dandy wearing it, which may be why Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap and called the effect macaroni. (A species of penguin with an orange-colored crest is called the macaroni penguin.) Doodle comes from a German word meaning "simpleton"—the same definition that noodle had at the time (honest, starchy foods like dumplings have long had bad reputations). The song "Yankee Doodle" was used by the British to ridicule the American colonists, who adopted it in self-defense.

Macaroni came to America with the English, who served it baked with cheese and cream, as was also popular in the north of Italy, and in rich sweet baked custards. Thomas Jefferson is credited with introducing dried pasta without egg to America, but, like the Marco Polo legend, this is a romantic fiction. He did take notes on the manufacturing process during a trip to Naples and even commissioned a friend in Italy to buy him a "maccarony machine." He shipped himself two cases of pasta in 1789. By 1798 a Frenchman had opened what may have been the first American pasta factory, in Philadelphia, and it was a success. Upper-class Americans also bought pasta imported from Sicily, which had snob appeal.

Other factories opened, the price went down, and by the Civil War macaroni was available to the working classes. Books of the period indicate that the common way to serve it was cooked until soft—usually at least half an hour—and baked with cheese and cream. Macaroni and cheese, then, like many other dishes that the English brought to the Colonies, can be considered an old American dish. In the mid-1880s, according to Karen Hess, the food historian, cookbooks published as far from the East as Kansas included recipes for macaroni, some involving a tomato and meat sauce. One writer in Philadelphia advocated macaroni as a food item "more valuable" than bread. Americans did not take it up in large numbers, however. It lost its cachet once the masses could afford it, and the fashionable restaurants of New York did not serve it—or any other Italian dish—even though many of them were run by Italians.

The huge wave of Italian immigration that began toward the end of the century was ultimately responsible for pasta's becoming a staple of the American middle class, but at first the immigrants put the rest of America off the very idea of pasta. From 1880 to 1921 more than five million Italian's came to America, three quarters of them from the regions south of Rome, and both their numbers and their strange ways seemed threatening. Harvey Levenstein, a professor of history at McMaster University, in Ontario, and Joseph Conlin, a professor of history at Chico State University, in California, are writing a book about the food that Italian immigrants ate in America. They say that social workers and nutritionists were horrified by the immigrants' pasta, hard cheese, vegetables, fruit, and—worst of all—garlic. Food science, a new discipline in the 1890s (entertainingly described in Laura Shapiro's recently published book Perfection Salad), declared that most fruits and vegetables, particularly green vegetables, were of little nutritional value and cost too much.

The Italians ignored the advice to eat right. They cultivated any land they could and grew vegetables and herbs that they could not find in America; they canned vegetables; they spent what the home economists thought were appalling sums on small pieces of imported hard cheese. When reformers tried to set up cooking classes in Italian neighborhoods, they found few pupils. Doctors complained that Italians would not enter hospitals because they considered the food inedible.

The Italians did change their eating habits, although they did so of necessity, not because nutritionists told them to. They ate fewer varieties of fruit, vegetables, and cheese than they had been used to, because of the trouble and expense involved in obtaining what they liked. They ate much more meat, because it was extremely cheap and plentiful by their standards. They acquired a taste for cakes and rich desserts. They also ate more pasta, which, because of its cost, had been a holiday dish for many southern Italians. The seasonings they used were primarily the classic ones of Campania, even though beginning in 1910 Sicilian immigrants outnumbered Campanian ones. Levenstein and Conlin explain that the Campanians were already established as grocers, and that tomato paste, oregano, and garlic were easier to come by than seasonings typical of other regions—such as pine nuts, wild fennel, and saffron for Sicilians, or ginger for immigrants from Basilicata, the region to the east of Campania.

For whatever reasons, what became Italian-American cuisine started with a base of Campanian food, minus many kinds of vegetables and cheeses and plus a lot of meat. Thus the rise of spaghetti and meatballs, a dish unknown in Italy. It probably had its origin in several baked Neapolitan pasta dishes, served at religious festivals such as Carnival and Christmas, that used meatballs no bigger than walnuts and also called for such ingredients as ham and boiled eggs. Thus, too, the rise of the lavish portions and the reliance on garlic, hot pepper flakes, and oregano, seasonings that seemed to become more and more prominent as the immigrants were assimilated into American culture. Levenstein and Conlin point out that Italian-Americans embraced enthusiastically the Americanized version of their food, and went on thinking of it as just like the food in the old country.

Although hundreds of small pasta factories opened in urban Little Italys, Italians preferred to buy imported pasta, however expensive, because it was made from durum wheat. (American farmers did not grow durum until this century.) The First World War brought imports to a halt, and between 1914 and 1919 the number of American pasta makers rose from 373 to 557. Sales were helped by a new generation of food scientists, whose discovery of vitamins prompted them to recommend eating pasta. Pasta was also cheap at a time when food prices were rising. Recipes for spaghetti and tomato sauce started turning up in women's magazines. American millers found a new use for flour, the consumption of which had decreased as the population moved to cities and began eating "better" diets, which were not based on bread. The millers sponsored "eat more wheat" campaigns in the early 1920s and promoted macaroni as "the divine food" (referring to the word's supposed derivation from the Greek word for "blessed"). Pasta makers began using durum wheat, which they advertised as being higher in protein than soft wheat (it is, but not by much). Campbell's, Heinz, and other manufacturers brought out canned macaroni with tomato sauce, joining Franco-American, which in the 1890s had begun to sell canned spaghetti, stressing that it used a French recipe. Cooking pasta long enough to can it safely institutionalized what was already a long-established practice, one for which Italians still deride Americans—overcooking pasta and thus robbing it of its savor and interest.

Now it was acceptable to promote Italian food, even if the pasta was mush and the tomato sauce was full of sugar and salt. One typical recipe for tomato sauce omitted garlic and consisted of canned tomato soup with. Worcestershire sauce added. In 1927 Kraft began marketing grated "Parmesan" cheese in a cardboard container with a perforated top and suggested that the cheese be served as a topping for spaghetti with tomato sauce. Spaghetti sales outnumbered those of egg noodles and ran a strong second in popularity to elbow macaroni, called simply macaroni, which was already conventional in salads.

The efforts at promotion worked. Annual per capita consumption went from near zero in 1920 to 3.75 pounds by the end of the decade (as compared with fifty pounds in Italy). Restaurants accounted for much of this rise. Cafeterias, which became tremendously popular in the twenties, served a great deal of spaghetti and tomato sauce. Italians all over the country opened "spaghetti houses" that served spaghetti and meatballs to blue-collar workers. By the end of the twenties Italian restaurants had become the most popular ethnic restaurants in American cities, a lead they now hold nationwide. The Depression made spaghetti less an option than a necessity, and spaghetti and meatballs began appearing regularly on millions of American tables.

Just when pasta was becoming almost as ordinary a meal in America as it had long been in Italy, one Italian was telling his countrymen to stop eating it. In the early thirties Italy was appalled when F T. Marinetti, the founder of Futurist poetry and painting, published his Manifesto of Futurist Cuisine, which called for a ban on all pasta on the grounds that pasta was responsible for "the weakness, pessimism, inactivity, nostalgia, and neutralism" he saw all around him. Italians, who should be thin, the better to ride in "ultralight aluminum trains," should eat only rice as a starch. Macaroni was a "symbol of oppressive dullness, plodding deliberation, and fat-bellied conceit." Knives and forks would go too. Dishes combining strange ingredients chosen for their color as well as their taste would sometimes be eaten and sometimes merely passed under the nose of the diner to excite his curiosity. A cookbook put together by Marinetti and Luigi Fillia, an artist, and published in 1932 included dishes that today sound almost familiar: winter-cherry risotto; a spread of tuna fish, apples, olives, and Japanese peanuts, to be served on a cold egg-and-jam omelet; and an under-ripe date filled with cream cheese and liqueur, wrapped in raw ham and a lettuce leaf, and served with pickled chili pepper and small pieces of Parmesan cheese. The Futurists presaged nouvelle cuisine. The Italians were not interested in the bizarre suggestions and were outraged at the idea of giving up pasta. Even Americans were alarmed. The American National Macaroni Manufacturers Association sent Mussolini a telegram of protest.

Mussolini did not ban pasta. Rather, he initiated the growing of durum wheat in central and northern Italy in an effort to make the country self-sufficient. Factories in the north began making pasta in the 1930s, and electric drying tunnels replaced sea and volcanic breezes. Naples became steadily less important in the manufacture of pasta, and today the province of Campania is only the sixth-largest producer of pasta in the country.

Who Makes the Best Pasta, and How

I recently visited a number of pasta factories in Italy to learn how pasta is made and which brands are the best. Disappointingly, none of the factories I saw resembled the smokestack-crammed temples of the Industrial Revolution depicted on boxes. Pasta factories today are anonymous and modern, and their proprietors generally do not welcome tours. The young man guiding me through Braibanti, a factory near Parma, stopped in his tracks when I asked to climb the stairs to one machine to look at the addition of water and eggs to dough for dried egg noodles—one of the few parts of the manufacturing process that makes a difference in quality from brand to brand. "Why exactly do you want to see that?" he asked icily.

Luckily, I was able to see the manufacturing process on a scale that made sense to me—at the small and delightful factory of Martelli, which many cognoscenti consider thebest exporter of pasta in Italy. (The company's only peer's are tiny factories near Naples, whose products are hard to find even in Italy and are almost unknown here.) The factory is in four or five rooms of two medieval buildings in Lari, a Tuscan hill town twenty miles from Pisa. The buildings are in the shadow of a twelfth-century castle at the top of the hill. The castle appears on the cheerful, bright-yellow packages, whose text is written in what looks like a very neat child's hand.

I arrived on a Saturday afternoon to find Dino and Mario Martelli and their wives, Lucia and Valeria, packing maccheroni. The women wore yellow aprons that matched the packages. These four are the only employees. Dino and Mario's father and uncle started the business in 1926 by buying out a local pasta maker. Today the brothers use the same equipment the company had in the 1940s, before high-temperature drying tunnels became popular. The Martellis make only four shapes—spaghetti; spaghettini, or thin spaghetti; maccheroni; and penne, diagonally cut ridged tubes named for quill pens. The Martelli factory has only one "pasta line," as the machine that mixes, kneads, extrudes, and dries dough is called. The one at Martelli is small—about eight feet high, seven feet wide, and eighteen feet long.

The brothers mixed a batch of dough for spaghetti to show me the process. They buy durum from Canada, the United States, and elsewhere and have it ground at a mill nearby, so that it will be fresh. Italian manufacturers are known for their skill at blending many durums to achieve the color and texture they seek. Americans are rarely as discriminating. This disparity, more than anything else, accounts for the superiority of Italian over American pasta.

Mixing and kneading take from thirty to forty minutes at Martelli, as opposed to the twenty usual in other factories; the Martellis say that long kneading improves flavor. The dough is forced at great pressure through holes in one of four dies, each of which is shaped like a big hockey puck; the choice of die determines the shape of the pasta as it is extruded. If pins are suspended from wires in each hole the pasta will be hollow after it is forced through the die; the hole is bigger where the dough enters than where it leaves, so the two sides of the tube are joined as the dough streams out. If the holes are notched where the dough enters them, the pasta will be curved. The Martellis use only bronze dies, because the rough, porous surface these create makes for better sauce absorption. Teflon-lined dies, which most manufacturers use today, produce pretty, polished surfaces that don't hold sauce well. The Martellis are careful not to apply too much pressure or to allow the temperature of the dough to rise too high during extrusion, lest the proteins in the semolina be denatured, making the cooked product soft.

How long and at what temperature pasta is dried are also important to the quality of cooked pasta. The Martellis use an automatic dryer only for the first stage of drying, which lasts about an hour. The pasta stays in the tunnel for several more hours to enable the humidity in the center and on the surface to equalize. The brothers then carry it on poles or screens to one of several drying closets, which have appealing doors of wood and glass. Other manufacturers send the pasta through another and much longer tunnel for between six and twenty-eight hours, often at temperatures so high that they risk denaturing the protein. At Martelli the pasta stays in the closets, which have curved, tin-lined walls to distribute air from small fans at the top, for two days or more (the pasta left to Naples winds could take as long as a week to dry). The comparatively low temperatures greatly improve flavor, according to the Martellis, who claim to be the only manufacturers left who use drying closets. They doubtless are the only manufacturers to dry pasta in closets that have a view of miles of Tuscan hills and valleys interrupted only by grapevines and castles.

When the pasta is dry, it travels through what looks like a laundry chute to the adjacent building, where it is packed and crated. The Martellis don't cut the spaghetti and spaghettini; as a sign of their craftsmanship they leave it rounded where the strands have hung on the poles. The shop's production is small, but the family claims to like it that way. Martelli pasta is a luxury item in Italy, where it is sold in a few gourmet shops, and in America, where it is available from the Williams-Sonoma chain of kitchen shops and from Dean & DeLuca (the telephone number for mail-order service is 800-221-7714).

My visits to other factories in Italy and the United States confirmed the differences that the Martellis had pointed out. The kneading was faster, the dies were Teflon, the drying tunnels were so long that the rooms holding them looked like sound stages. One factory I visited—the most determinedly high-tech—was Fini, which consists of a long, low white structure adjoining a sixteenth-century building that until 1974 housed the factory. Originally a monastery, it is now the office building, and at the main entrance big sliding glass doors lead to a chapel, which has a carved Madonna in a niche, topped by a blue neon halo. The new factory building is almost overwhelmingly luxurious. The floors are terra-cotta tile, the walls white stucco, and there are stainless-steel doors and counters everywhere. One storage room has wooden floor-to-ceiling shelves finished as carefully as library shelves and filled with wheels of Parmesan cheese. Modena, a city midway between Bologna and Milan, where Fini is situated, has the highest per capita income of any city in Italy, so perhaps the luxury isn't surprising. In the center of the city Fini maintains two excellent food shops and a restaurant that is considered one of the best in the country for traditional Italian food.

Fini makes only egg pasta. The dough is extruded in long sheets that are then either cut into long ribbons, which are sold dried, or punched into shapes that are filled and shipped frozen, to be sold either frozen or thawed. The fillings are made with the same quality of Parmesan cheese and meats that Fini sells separately (the company opened at the turn of the century as a purveyor of cured meats and sausages).

The differences between Fini and Prince, one of the largest manufacturers in the United States, were instructive. The eggs, for example, are fresh at Fini and at every Italian factory I visited: my Italian guides made much of how frequently their eggs are delivered and how difficult it is to keep the storage tanks immaculate and at the right temperature. The guide at Prince showed me blocks of frozen eggs and said that powdered eggs are frequently used; a woman in Prince's test laboratories told me that frozen and powdered eggs are the standard in America. The guide boasted about the speed of the Italian high-temperature drying tunnels that Prince had installed. The American factory seemed far more concerned with volume than with quality.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.
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