Pasta: The Long and Short of It

Pasta, a simple amalgam of wheat flour and water, is one of the world's most popular staples. It's Italy's gift to humanity. With its hundreds of shapes and sizes, its infinite variety of sauces. Pasta is the foundation of one of the world's great cuisines. From Rome, Megan Williams explains how and when it was invented, where it got its shapes, and why it is so beloved.
Listen to Pasta: The Long & Short of It

For me, it began when I was 18.

In our family kitchen in Toronto, I watched as a high school exchange student from Italy made spaghetti for me.

When I was a kid, we'd have spaghetti a few times a year. It was my favourite dish even then. My mother would make it on my birthday. I can still taste it. Ground beef, canned tomatoes, onions, bacon, and a tiny sprinkling of garlic powder. We were WASPS and garlic was risky stuff.

To be honest? I now realise the sauce was a little on the watery side. And the canned tomatoes slightly acidic. The spaghetti. Well, seriously over-cooked. I loved it.

But it was that Italian student, who later became my husband, who introduced me to a whole new world of pasta pleasure.

It wasn't just how good Lorenzo's pasta tasted. It was the way he prepared it. The way he cradled the cherry tomatoes when he washed them. The way he focused on the garlic as his chopped it.

The way he poured olive oil into the frying pan and released a small fistful of salt into a pot of boiling water. Carefully. Intimately. Like he had a tender, personal involvement with the food he was making.

What can I say? It was the start of a lifelong love affair.

A quarter of a century later, I'm standing at a long, wooden table in a country house north of Rome. I've lived in Italy for more than a decade now. Today, with some friends, I'm learning the secret to making great pasta.
Oretta Zanini de Vita is our host and teacher. She's a short, plump, whirling-dervish of a woman in her 70s.

Zanini is a pasta historian, probably the most knowledgeable person in the world on the subject.

Zanini spent a decade travelling up and down Italy... recording the countless varieties of pasta shapes and names for her beautiful Encyclopedia of Pasta.

She ferreted out centuries-old documents from archives, and spent hours listening to the stories of older women about their pasta-making ways and rituals. Women whose hands transformed a simple dough made from wheat flour and water into an astounding range of shapes and forms.

Long, short, fat, thin, layered, rolled, pinched, stuffed and stretched. A variety that no other noodle-eating culture has ever matched.

In her book-crammed apartment in Rome, Zanini takes me through the early history of pasta. She pulls out a map of the city dotted with osterie -- the traditional restaurants and inns that have served pasta and other simple dishes for centuries. The map dates back to the 1600s.

By then, there were more than 300 types of pasta -- small sculptures of wheat and flour christened by women's imaginations.

Spaghetti - little strings.

Farfalle - butterflies.

Tempestini - little storms.

And imps and elves - diavoletti and folletti.

And one of the most popular names:

Strozza preti - priest-strangling pasta.

But pasta goes back a lot further than the middle ages.

How far? Well, according to most historians, even further than the return of a certain explorer who's widely credited with bringing spaghetti to Italy from China.
- Megan Williams


Encyclopedia of Pasta by Oretta Zanini De Vita, translated by Maureen B. Fant, University of California Press, 2009, winner of The James Beard Foundation Award for Reference and Scholarship, 2010.

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