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.)