Most people know the story of Venetian explorer Marco Polo bringing noodles back home from China. It’s a fun story, but it’s also inaccurate: Pasta was already popular in Italy by the time Marco Polo made his famous voyage to China at the end of the 13th century. And while the Chinese may have been enjoying noodles for thousands of years before pasta first landed in Italy, that doesn’t necessarily mean the dish took a direct route from one country to the other. Some historians credit pasta’s arrival in Italy to Arab groups, who likely also shared their technique for drying it—which they developed as a preservation method on long journeys. This early Arabian pasta found its way to Greece as well; the ancient Greek word for ribbon is itrion, and some experts think this is related to the Arabic word for "noodle,” itriyya.
Whatever the provenance, Italians embraced pasta, and not just because it tastes good. The region’s climate makes it the perfect environment for growing durum wheat, the primary ingredient in pasta, along with eggs or water. Dough made with durum wheat flour, or semolina, has a high gluten content that allows it to be stretched into different shapes. And when semolina pasta is dried, it has a long shelf life. Durum wheat also sets Italian pasta apart from Asian noodles. Noodles from Asia are traditionally made with rice flour, and even wheat noodles like those found in some Chinese dishes use a different variety of wheat than durum.
You eat pasta, and you love pasta. But have you ever wondered just how your favorite pasta shapes came to be? Look no further than this list, adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.
Lasagne, one of the earliest known pasta shapes, traces its origins to ancient Rome by way of ancient Greece. Today, lasagne is the wide, flat noodle used to make ... lasagna, the cheesy, tomato-y dish that’s popular with many foodies (and 100 percent of cats who hate Mondays).
In a pre-Garfield world, lasagne—called laganon in ancient Greece and laganum in Rome—looked pretty different. The tomato didn’t come to Europe until the 16th century, and some interesting ingredients were used in proto-lasagna before its arrival. One early recipe from the late 4th or early 5th century cookbook Apicius called for a sauce of cooked sow's belly, raisin wine, and the breasts of figpeckers to be layered between thin pancakes. A lasagna recipe from the 14th-century Italian cookbook Liber de Coquina looks a little more familiar, with instructions saying to layer grated cheese and spices in with the pasta.
If pasta is from Europe and noodles are from Asia, what does that make vermicelli? Depending on the recipe being used, you could fairly put it in either camp, but it first emerged as a pasta in Italy roughly six centuries ago. One of the first mentions of vermicelli comes from The Art of Cooking Sicilian Macaroni and Vermicelli, a recipe book compiled by 15th-century culinary giant Martino da Como.
Martino cooked for the Duke of Milan and Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan, who was a close advisor to the pope and whose opulent banquets helped raise Martino’s profile. He’s regarded as one of the first celebrity chefs in Western culture, and in addition to pioneering the modern cookbook, he gave us incredible recipe titles like “How to Determine Whether a Cow’s Udder Is Good” and "How to Dress a Peacock With All Its Feathers, So That When Cooked, It Appears to Be Alive and Spews Fire From Its Beak." (For the record, you want to look for a reddish color in your not-too-fatty udder, and the trick to posthumous peacock fire is raw cotton doused in alcohol.)
Vermicelli is a long, thin pasta, and its name literally translates to little worms. Westerners decided to apply the name to any Asian noodle that looked similar. The thin noodles are used in dishes like pho and bun bo hue—but don’t expect to see the word vermicelli on menus in Asia. It isn’t used in these dishes’ countries of origin. A variety of regional names for long, skinny noodles are used instead.
The other pasta shape mentioned in the title of Martino da Como’s cookbook is macaroni. The name macaroni has a somewhat-disputed etymology, but here’s one interesting explanation that makes a good bit of sense. In Euripides’s Heracleidae, which tells the story of Heracles’s children, one of Heracles’s daughters is Macaria. Demophon, the king of Athens, announces that an oracle has told him the only way to save the city is to sacrifice a maiden from a noble father. Macaria offers herself up as the noble-born maiden, thus winning herself a “glorious death.” Because Greek mythology is nothing if not messy, there’s an account of another Makaria in the Suda, an encyclopedia of sorts of the ancient world. This Makaria is said to be Hades’s daughter, and she is, interestingly, also connected to a blessed death.
How does all this tie in to pasta? Greeks used the word makaria to describe food made from barley, perhaps because barley dishes were a common part of funerals in ancient Greece. Even today, the meal that’s served after a Greek Orthodox funeral is called a makaria. If this explanation is to be believed, macaroni as we know it today evolved from makaria, a dish made of barley flour. When the Greeks established the colony of Neapolis—present-day Naples—they encountered a barley-based dish made by the locals and called it makaria. Sometime between then and Kraft’s blue box, the grain used to make the dish became durum wheat and the name became maccheroni. For some Italians and many Italian-Americans, macaroni or its regional variant eventually became a catch-all term for any type of pasta.
However the name came about, macaroni eventually, and happily, met its famous culinary match. In Forme of Cury, a 14th-century cookbook written by King Richard II’s chefs, a recipe for "makerouns" calls for grated cheese and melted butter layered between the pasta.
Another version of macaroni and cheese can be found in the classic Roman dish cacio e pepe. Its name translates to cheese and pepper, and that’s a fairly comprehensive list of its ingredients, alongside some starchy pasta cooking water and the pasta itself, which is traditionally tonnarelli.
Tonnarelli looks a bit like spaghetti, but it generally has squared off, rather than rounded edges. De Cecco, an international pasta producer originally from the Abruzzo region of Italy, east of Rome, calls tonnarelli the regional version of Maccheroni alla Chitarra.” A chitarra is a device used to make pasta. It translates to “guitar,” and if you look at one you’ll see why. Its many wires are used to push thin sheets of raw pasta dough through, cutting the flat sections into thin strips in the process.
Stroncatura is a type of pasta from Calabria in southern Italy. It’s a bit like linguini, with a few notable differences: It’s slightly darker, has a rougher texture, and for much of its history, it was illegal.
Stroncatura was originally made by sweeping up scraps from pasta factory floors and turning them into dough. The resulting product had a sour taste and a porous surface that was perfect for clinging to pasta sauce. It was also essentially impossible to regulate, because its composition was determined by whatever scraps were collected from the factory floor on a given day, it could contain whole wheat flour, rye, semolina. Authorities worried about a lack of consistency and questionable hygiene. This meant that for years, the only way to get stroncatura was to buy it off the black market.
Today, stroncatura is made in much cleaner conditions. Manufacturers use the part of the wheat grain with the most fiber to recreate the dark color, while a bronze mold called a die gives it that uneven surface. Once the dirt was removed from the equation, both Italy’s government and its Michelin-starred chefs could get on board.
The origins of many older pasta shapes are hard to trace. Both Bologna and Modena lay claim to tortellini, but no one really knows where the stuffed, ring-shaped pasta comes from. According to one legend, the recipe was created by an innkeeper from Castelfranco Emilia, an Italian town that sits between Bologna and Modena. When the Roman goddess Venus checked into his inn one day, the innkeeper spied on her through the keyhole in her door and caught a glimpse of her navel. The sight inspired him to rush to the kitchen and invent the belly-button shaped dumpling now known as tortellini. Here’s hoping the true origin story wasn’t as creepy.
Spaghetti is arguably the most famous pasta to come out of Italy, and its early history is also not that clear. We know the name means “little strings,” and that spaghetti is the plural form of the singular spaghetto.
Spaghetti was being made in Sicily by at least the 1100s, but it wouldn’t achieve ubiquity until it arrived in the United States centuries later. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spaghetti was one of few Italian ingredients available stateside. The millions of Italians immigrating to America at this time also had access to meat and canned tomatoes, which is how spaghetti and meatballs became a staple of Italian-American households and restaurants.
Pedantic gourmands will tell you that actual Italians would never eat the two dishes together, and they’re probably right, but the story of pasta and meatballs isn’t quite that simple. In Abruzzo, for instance, a traditional dish pairs pasta with pallottine, which are a type of small meatball. According to David Gentilcore, professor of history at the University of Leicester, as early as 1632, a comic theater character says that he dreams “of a big dish of macaroni with meatballs on top.”
You might be surprised to learn how relatively new a lot of pasta shapes are. Penne was invented in 1865 when Italian pastamaker Giovanni Battista Capurro made a machine that cut thin tubes of pasta dough at an angle. He patented his penne machine on March 11 of that year, which makes penne one of the few pastas with a verifiable birthday.
Cavatappi didn’t arrive on the scene until the 1960s. That’s when the Italian pasta brand Barilla introduced a new tubular, corkscrew-shaped pasta called Cellentani. The name is a reference to Adriano Celentano, an Italian pop singer whose energetic stage presence earned him the nickname moleggiato, or “springs.” Barilla writes on its website: “As the shape resembles a coiled spring, it all made sense.” The name cavatappi was actually coined later as a generic term for the pasta shape because Celentano was trademarked by Barilla.
Gemelli means twins, and even though just one strand of pasta is used to create it, it does have a bit of a double-helix thing going on.
Mafaldine is said to have been named after the beautiful hair of an Italian princess, Mafalda of Savoy. Though the shape likely predated the princess, it did make a good story for the early-20th century renaming.
Orecchiette has been eaten as far back as the 12th century; the term means "little ears." Cute!
Strozzapreti means “priest chokers” or “priest stranglers,” and is supposedly named after an unfortunate priest who ate them too quickly. Less cute.
14 and 15. Marille and Mandala
Not every pasta shape has had a lasting cultural impact. In 1983, Voiello, a pasta manufacturer owned by Barilla, commissioned legendary Italian car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro to invent a new pasta for them. His creation, dubbed Marille, was designed to be both delicious and aesthetically appealing. Each piece had two tubes instead of one, with grooves on the inside to get more sauce in each bite. While innovative, the pasta also cooked unevenly, and it went out of production shortly after it debuted.
The French pasta producer Panzani tried a similar experiment in 1987 when it hired French designer Philippe Starck to create his own pasta shape. His mandala pasta was basically reimagined rigatoni. It had a panel in the middle to keep it from collapsing and extra-thick walls to make it harder to overcook. Unfortunately, Mandala went the way of Marille.