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  • Writer's pictureMade of Italy TEAM

The history of pasta, between stories and legends

Over 1.6 million tons of it are consumed in Italy every year, and there is no day that it is not brought to the table. Spaghetti, fusilli, penne: we are obviously talking about pasta, one of the main dishes of the Mediterranean diet and a symbol of Italian cuisine today.

However, not everyone knows that the origins of pasta are actually to be found further east, between Greece and Arabia. But let’s go in order and discover the history of pasta, or at least the legend!

Lasagna of the ancient Greeks

The earliest known form of pasta is a kind of lasagna that was prepared in Ancient Greece. The playwright Aristofane mentions it in the fifth century B.C. in his writings, mentioning several times the so-called “laganon,” or strips of pastry made with flour and water. This pastry was then baked and seasoned with sauces and condiments, just as we do today.

The Ancient Romans also cooked a similar dish and it is Orazio who talks about it, mentioning very thin strips of pasta made with water and wheat flour that were called “laganum.”

The origins of dry pasta

Quite different is the story of the origins of dry pasta, which seems to have Arab roots instead.

We are in ninth-century North Africa, dominated by the Arabs, a people of navigators and explorers. They were the very first to understand that exposing pasta to heat reduced the water content inside and made the pasta last much longer. It then became the perfect food to take on their long journeys: energetic and nutritious, it was light to carry and did not spoil.

During one of these journeys, pasta arrived in Sicily. Wheat and grain grew in abundance here, making the island the perfect place to produce large quantities of pasta during Arab rule.

The first written record dates back to 1154, when the Arab historian al-Idrisi wrote that in Palermo they produced so-called thyra, long strands of flour and water that were dried in the sun. Most likely we are in the presence of the ancestors of spaghetti!

What about Marco Polo?

A popular story says that it was Marco Polo, returning from his trip to China in the 13th century, who first introduced pasta to Italy. Actually, as we have just seen, lasagna, spaghetti and dry pasta had already been present in Italy for some time. Perhaps some kind of pasta made from rice flour really existed in China, but we have no proof of this.

Instead, it seems established that the Marco Polo theory was launched in the United States in the 1930s in order to make pasta an international food and to shake off the idea of pasta from Italian immigrants, who were not well liked at the time.

Pasta seasonings: from sugar to tomato

For many centuries, pasta remained a rich dish, intended only for the upper classes because it had a high cost. The cities in Italy where most of it was consumed were Naples and Genoa.

It was consumed with different types of toppings. In Boccaccio’s Decameron we read about a traditional plain pasta, seasoned only with oil, while in Naples it was common to eat a sweet version of pasta. Neapolitan macaroni was fried with honey and sugar or simmered in a mixture of milk, sugar, butter, cinnamon and other sweet spices.

We will have to wait until the 1600s for pasta to start being seasoned with the sauce par excellence: his majesty the tomato! It was precisely tomato, basil and a pinch of salt that were the ingredients used by Neapolitan street vendors to season the pasta that they sold on every street corner and that was eaten with hands. 

In this same period, pasta became a popular food, within everyone’s reach.

From the origins of pasta to today

In the 19th century, Italian emigration around the world contributed to the spread of pasta to many other countries. Italians brought with them knowledge in pasta preparation, traditions and regional recipes, some of which were extensively revised.

This allowed pasta to become a beloved dish all over the world, which has been able to adapt to the tastes and cultures of different countries, while always remaining a typical dish of Italian cuisine.

Did you know the origins of pasta?

What is your favorite format and sauce?


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