From whimsical marketing ploys to an outrageous carbonara, humble pasta has had a bumpy ride through the ages.
Alecia Wood

21 Jul 2016 - 12:23 PM  UPDATED 11 Sep 2017 - 5:35 PM

Who knew that pasta could be a topic for an online furore - or even, a wedding theme? Here are some of this humble Italian staple\s more interesting moments. 

Marco Polo was no pasta pioneer 

It may be far-flung legend, but Marco Polo didn’t introduce Italy to Chinese noodles, thus laying the foundations for spaghetti.

Keen for a captivating tale to promote their US-made pastas, in 1929 the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association published a fanciful story that saw ‘Spaghetti’ – a sailor on Marco Polo’s ship – come across dried, string-shaped dough in China. The folklore snowballed, even making it into the 1938 film The Adventures of Marco Polo, where the Venetian explorer dines on a dish of “spa ghet” at a local’s home in China.

So who can we thank for Italy’s beloved staple? The origins of Italian pasta are tough to trace. The Mediterranean’s busy trade routes most likely introduced North African itriyya – the Arabic word for “long thin strands of dried dough that were cooked by boiling”, writes Eating History: Italy presenter John Dickie in his book, Delizia! – to Norman-ruled Sicily in the mid-12th Century. The island became a major producer of this ancient spaghetti for export, and by the 14th Century, Italians were eating pasta of all shapes and sizes.

Dickie does away with the Marco Polo myth, traces the more likely spread of macaroni and spaghetti through Italy, shows how pasta was - and is - used to win votes and influence, and then tries his hand at making pasta (the local nonnas are not that impressed with his technique!) in episode 4 of the show, starting Friday September 15 4.30pm on SBS - find out more here - and then available 24/7 on SBS On Demand

A failed culinary revolution

It’s the early 1930s, Fascism under Mussolini is well under way, and Futurism has set eyes on a gastronomic goal – down with pasta! The Futurist artistic and social movement sought to do away with all things archaic and propel Italy into a modern era of speed and industrialization, claiming pasta “makes people heavy, brutish, deludes them into thinking it is nutritious, makes them sceptical, slow, pessimistic” (according to the Futurist Cookbook).

A group of Futurists even opened the Taverna del Santopalato (Holy Palate Tavern) in Turin in 1931 with hopes to “kill off the deeply rooted habits of the palate”, Dickie explains in Delizia!. In the aluminium-clad dining room, avant garde creations were served up like "carneplastico", a tube of roast veal meatloaf stuffed with vegetables, topped with honey, wrapped in sausage and fried chicken nuggets. Lucky that one – and their anti-pasta campaign – didn’t catch on.

Carbonara 2.0

Un minuto di slienzio per il maiale macellato per sto schifo… – “A minute of silence for the pig that died for this crap…” – read one response. “I want to cry” said the next. “It’s the death of pasta” claimed another.

The impassioned furore from Italian Facebook users came flooding in in response to a video recipe by French site Demotivateur last April. Their culinary crime? A one-pot carbonara that cooked butterfly-shaped farfalle (in place of the traditional spaghetti) in boiling water along with white onion and bacon – who has time to fry them off separately, anyway? – mixing in a dollop of crème fraîche. The plated dish was garnished with an egg yolk, instead of stirring it through to form a rich sauce without any other condiments, as tradition suggests.

Italian national newspaper La Repubblica dedicated an entire spread to covering the outrage and showed how a true spaghetti alla carbonara should be made. Even pasta-producing giant Barilla came to the party on Facebook: “this really goes too far”. Touché.

Get the recipe for this spaghetti alla carbonara here


Law and order(ing in Italian)

If Carbonaragate wasn’t enough to strain gastronomic relations between Italy and France, let’s rewind three years to an Italian diner in Quebec, Canada. Nestled within a nation of English speakers, the Office québécois de la langue française (Quebec Board of the French Language) is tasked with ensuring language standards are maintained in their francophone province.

They found Buonanotte restaurant’s menu, listing the likes of pasta, bottiglia and pesce – rather than the French equivalents pâtes, bouteille and poisson – to be unlawful. Owner Massimo Lecas was issued a letter demanding the terms be translated into local tongue. Upset, Lecas posted the letter on Facebook, outrage ensued, and the officials eventually backed down a bit.

Holy macaroni

When you’re a patron of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it’s only natural that your wedding band is a ring of dried pasta. Last April, Marianna Fenn exchanged vows with Toby Ricketts in the world’s first Pastafarian wedding in New Zealand. The religion was founded in the United States as a tongue-in-cheek way to provoke thought around religion. During the ceremony, the groom promised to always add salt to the water for boiling spaghetti, the bride donned a colander on her head, and the pair were clad in head-to-toe pirate get-ups. As you do.

Eat that pasta faster

Turns out, all those years of turning down a steaming bowl of fettucine in an effort to stay slim was altogether wrong. A recent Italian study revealed that pasta is not only not fattening, but it can even help you lose weight. Carb lovers, rejoice!

good news, pasta lovers
Pasta not fattening, Italian study finds
Contrary to popular perceptions, an Italian study has found pasta is not fattening, and instead it can, in fact, help a person lose weight.

Get cooking

Bet you’re craving pasta now, right? Whether made fresh with eggs or dried for pantry storage, the many styles of pasta and the recipes to prepare them vary from region to region, village to village,​ and even cook to cook in Italy.

Here are some timeless pasta recipes from a few different regions to try at home – you can even make your dough from scratch.

pasta please
Pasta with sardines (pasta con le sarde)

Italians observe a symbolic fast on Christmas Eve, so the festive dinner, cena della vigilia (vigil dinner), is a seafood extravaganza, serving courses of fish, including shellfish, eel and baccala (salted cod). American-Italians have upheld this tradition, where it is known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, featuring strictly seven courses. However, in Italy, there is generally no set number of dishes, and in true Italian style, some households prepare as many as 20 courses. A popular addition is pasta con le sarde, a classic Sicilian dish from Palermo traditionally made using the island’s wild fennel.

Pumpkin tortellini with sage butter (tortellini di zucca con salvia e burro)

Offering a twist on an old favourite, this recipe from Guy Grossi features chilli, garlic and leek in the tortellini pumpkin filling.

Orecchiette with broccoli rabe (orecchiette con cime di rapa)

Broccoli rabe, or rapini, is a bitter green that comes into season in autumn. It is a member of the turnip family and you will find it at selected greengrocers in bundles of large leaves with broccoli-like flower heads opening into small yellow flowers. Guy learnt this recipe from his father, Pietro, who is from Puglia in southern Italy. It’s earthy and rustic – a peasant-style dish to get you through the day.

Discover more of Italy's rich culinary heritage in Eating History: Italy, on Fridays at 4.30pm on SBS and then available on SBS On Demand. Find out more in our episode guide