Italy and pasta are one. When one thinks of Italy, pasta comes to mind and viceversa. Pasta in Italy is as varied and diverse for types and shapes as the country itself. In the north, the Alps serve as borders and are a barrier against cold polar air. At their feet lies a vast plain.
Going south, just past Bologna, the lower mountain chain of the Apennines, further shields the peninsula from the cold air of the north and the skies are of a more intense blue.
The Apennines mountains chain continues forming like a spine along the center of Italy long boot shaped peninsula which is flanked by the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian seas.
Towards the two coasts, the landscape opens to rolling hills and briefly to plains by the seas, more on the Tyrrhenian side. One exception is Puglia, on the Adriatic side, the heel of the boot, which is mostly flat.
The center of Italy is rich in culture, especially Tuscany, the region where the Italian language was born.
Italy with Tuscany at the forefront is where the rinascimento (rebirth) started. French translation also adopted in English: renaissance. It shook and woke up the rest of Europe from the dark ages.
Italy and pasta: one and many
There is no reliable history of pasta. It was probably made in quantities first in Sicily. But certainly was perfected in
Pasta is king in Naples, something like tea to the English or beer to the Germans.
It was in Naples that pasta was perfected, thanks to the ideal climate for drying pasta, the most delicate process in the production. Before the advent of machines, pasta was dried in the open.
Good weather was needed with mild stable temperatures and no sudden changes.
For this reason, Genova too was a great center for pasta production. The city is protected from the cold winds of the north by the Apennine Mountains and the sea, south, is a stabilizing factor. Temperatures are mild, without extremes, like in the rest of the riviera, which benefits from the same conditions.
Palermo in Sicily was also another great center of pasta production due to the ideal weather.
As varied as the geography of Italy is, so are the Italians. Even though united by a common culture and language, since ancient Rome, they were divided politically, more than geographically.
Italy was made of city states and territories. So there was Milan, Venice, Florence, the kingdom of Naples and the center of Italy with Rome under the pope… And more.
Of course, so divided, Italy was target for every serious invader.
Finally in 1860 Italy was unified, except for Rome, which happened 10 years later. But the minister, architect of the Italian territorial unity, justly observed: “Italy is made; now we have to make the Italians”.
That statement is still true today, even though the situation is not as dramatic. Yet, there are differences among Italians in traditions, attitudes, food and dialects. Even old rivalries and prejudices may still surface, due in part to the divided history.
In Florence they would say: ” It’s better someone dead at home than a Pisano at the door”. In Rome they say the same about a person from Marche (a region of Italy).
Italians are passionate about food. If they have a panino or some fast food is for necessity or emergency. They can’t settle for that, if they can help it. They don’t want to slave in the kitchen for hours either. A quick pasta recipe and even a whole meal doesn’t take more than half an hour in many cases.
In the north, pasta is an excuse for rich sauces or more complex mix of ingredients hidden in fresh pasta. In the south, they prefer pasta as it is in the dried form and a mostly simple sauce will do. The strength of the dish is in the quality of the pasta itself. Take a simple spaghetti ca pummarola from Naples just dressed in a simple tomato sauce.
In the center of Italy, sausage, bacon tomato onion garlic and sheep cheese, pecorino, are favorite ingredients. They are readily available and cheap and, above all, they strike a good balance between nutrition and taste.
Many pasta dishes were devised out of necessity and circumstances by shepherds and cart drivers, always on the move, but willing to look for ways to cheer their day. Pasta was the best way: cheap, easy, quick, appetizing, and satisfying.
In the south, quick easy sauces are preferred with tomato almost always omnipresent, especially in Naples. Towards the toe of Italy, hot spiced sauces are generally the rule. In Puglia the heel of Italy, some popular fresh pasta making is still alive in simple shapes like in orecchiette and cavatelli. Unlike in the north of Italy, semolina is used and without eggs.
In the north, Bologna, is considered with reason the gastronomic capital of Italy, nicknamed “la grassa” (the fat) for her products, mortadella, the most famous. From that, mortadella types in the States are called “Bologna” Americanized in sound and sometimes in writing as “baloney”. Also lasagna and tortellini have their origins in Bologna.
Bologna region, Emilia Romagna, is also the land of prosciutto di Parma, parmigiano Reggiano and Barilla pasta, truly number one in sales in Italy, as advertised.
Another type of stuffed pasta very popular, ravioli, originated in Genova.
Regardless of what you may have heard about Italy and pasta, the everyday plate of pasta, north, center and south of Italy is dominated by dried pasta for its properties: many shapes, quality, long storage and easy and quick preparation.
Fresh homemade pasta is time consuming, not so much when made into fettuccine or other pasta ribbons shapes. All it takes is rolling the sfoglia (thin dough) and cutting it.
But it takes a labor of love and time when fresh pasta is shaped and stuffed to make tortellini, cappelletti, agnolotti, ravioli, and whatever. Let apart the sauce that goes with them. So, homemade pasta is generally reserved for special and festive occasions.
Sure, everything is available ready made in a supermarket, but that takes away from the satisfaction to the homemaker of creating her own product fresh and knowing exactly what’s in it. That goes without mentioning quality and taste.
Italy and pasta, her recognized national dish, will surprise you at the possibilities, limited only by imagination, of dressing a simple mix of ground wheat and water, properly worked of course, to a level of a deliciously welcome culinary experience.