Pasta is an iconic symbol of Italy and its cuisine. Hundreds of shapes and thousands of recipes give expression to the culture and products of the country’s regions. But spaghetti with tomato sauce remains Italy’s identity dish par excellence.
Massimo Montanari goes in search of the dish’s true origins, tracing its history along the multiple, intricate routes taken by its raw ingredients to merge and become the distinctive element of a whole culinary tradition.
Did medieval explorer Marco Polo bring pasta back from China, or is that a myth? How did the Neapolitan “macharoni” turn into the ubiquitous spaghetti? And is it even an Italian dish? In the kitchen, the blending of practices and traditions is as necessary as seasoning. It took almost two thousand years and input from the Far East, the Arabic world, and the Americas, for spaghetti with tomato sauce to take centre stage. Its development is the result of chance encounters, unplanned exchanges, and unpredictable intersections. The deeper we dig in search of the dish’s origins, the more we find its strands wrap right around the world.
“Montanari traces the unstoppable rise of what would become the most famous dish in the whole world.”
“A learned and entertaining volume.”
“Al dente”: this untranslatable expression (indeed, the English version is identical to the Italian, literally “to the tooth”) evokes in a synthetic fashion an essential element of Italian gastronomic culture, pasta, and at the same time, the proper way to cook it: not too long, in order to keep it firm to the bite. Nevertheless, medieval and Renaissance cookbooks recommended cooking pasta a long time, for a number of minutes that today would leave us aghast. “These macaroni want to boil for the space of two hours,” Maestro Martino prescribes in his recipe for Sicilian macaroni. The indication was apparently susceptible to rather significant variations, with another manuscript of the same book reducing the cooking time to “one hour gently gently” and still another takes it down to “half an hour”— adding, however, that in principle “all pasta wants to be well cooked.” Bartolomeo Scappi, in the 1500s, also suggests prolonged cooking. For his “Romanesque macaroni dish” he advises pre-cooking in boiling water for half an hour, then “taste them to see if they are tender, and if not, keep them at a boil until they are well cooked.” That’s not all. “At this point, the pasta is put onto a plate, arranged on three layers each topped with grated cheese, sugar, and cinnamon, then the whole thing is covered with an overturned plate and left to stew on the hot coals, or in the oven, for another half hour.”
Massimo Montanari, currently Professor of Medieval History at Bologna University, is a scholar in Food Studies. He has been invited as visiting professor to a number of leading universities in Europe, Japan, the United States, Mexico and Canada, and is one of the founders of the international review Food & History.