Pasta is an amazing food. Just think, it’s available everywhere, easy to keep a long time, quick to prepare and in all kinds of different ways, popular with everyone and nourishing and economical. While pasta is eaten all over the world, it has become nearly synonymous with Italy. The most famous varieties and recipes of pasta come from Italy, and it is here that it has become increasingly intertwined with the culture and traditions. Many parallels have been drawn between fine art and the art of making pasta. The hundreds of different pasta shapes and sauces are a result of Italy’s artistic vision for this once simple source of carbohydrates.
Pasta is categorized in two basic types: dry and fresh. Dry pasta, or pasta secca, made without eggs, can be stored for up to two years under ideal conditions. Fresh pasta, or pasta fresca, will only keep for a few days under refrigeration. In Italy, dry pasta can only be produced from durum wheat flour or durum wheat semolina. Durum flour and semolina have a yellow tinge in color, responsible for pasta’s golden appearance. Even more appealing is the resulting consistency of the final product, which can be achieved if prepared correctly.
Italian pasta is traditionally cooked al dente, or firm to the bite, by removing the pasta from the boiling water slightly early. Salt is an important addition to the water. It is also critical to wait until the water is boiling briskly, before adding the pasta to the pot, and then to stir it occasionally, to prevents the pieces of pasta from sticking together. After straining, it is common practice to quickly mix the pasta with sauce in the original pot on the stove, over heat, while stirring rapidly. Olive oil is generally the base for the sauce and grated cheese is often included or added at the table, usually Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano. Outside Italy, dry pasta is frequently made from other types of flour, such as wheat flour, but this yields a softer product that cannot be cooked al dente the same way.
The history of pasta is uncertain, though it is most commonly believed to have originated in China approximately 4,000 years ago. The origins of pasta in Italy are also disputed. Some believe that it was brought here by the Arabs and others claim that it was first produced in Rome during the Imperial period. Regardless of where it was first made, it is clear that pasta was created out of necessity by the poorer classes to prevent basic food from infestation and deterioration. Over time, however, pasta has become a staple of Italian cuisine, morphed into an assortment of shapes, prepared with a variety of delicious sauces, and eaten by all. Today, it is quite difficult to find an Italian menu without at least one pasta dish. A whole page of pastas under the heading primi, or first courses, is more likely.
The transformation of pasta from a simple, long-lasting and nutritional hunger-satisfier to a real dish that is pleasing to the palate came in the 18th century, when pasta was combined with tomato. Until then it had been eaten plain or with some grated cheese. With the addition of tomato, chefs began concocting sauces making pasta more appealing and enjoyable.
Conversely, the industrial method for drying pasta, making it fit for the regular commercial market, was perfected around Naples only in the early years of the 19th century. This was done by submitting the freshly-made pasta to a combination and alternation of hot and cold air. Since, however, this operation had to be carried out within a very short span of time, an appropriate climate was necessary, in which frequent changes of temperature took place during the 24-hour period. It turned out that perfection was to be found in the area of Torre Annunziata, a suburb of Naples, which explains the success of the pasta manufactured in that city.
Nowadays, thumbing through the catalogue of any Italian pasta company, you’ll be amazed by the astonishing variety of shapes and names. Only a people gifted with great imagination could come up with names like rotini (little wheels), capelli d’angelo (angel’s hair), conchiglie (shells), vermicelli (tiny worms), as well as gnocchi, maccheroni, lasagne, tagliatelle, tortellini, cannelloni, ravioli, fettuccine, levatelli, casatelli, etc… People anywhere else would have said: what’s the shape matter if the substance is the same? The Italians instead realized that in order to eat well it isn’t enough to offer something wholesome and nourishing, but the mind must be teased, and that the way to the stomach is through the eyes.
Regardless of which artistic interpretation of pasta you choose for your next course or meal, make sure to use pasta made in Italy, cook it al dente, and enjoy!
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