• Fresh egg pasta filled with dairy signifies wealth in the north of Italy. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Pasta come in all shapes and sizes, from giant tubular tortiglioni to small cylindrical cavatelli, and each one has a story behind it.
Renata Gortan

21 Oct 2020 - 1:07 PM  UPDATED 21 Oct 2020 - 1:07 PM

Tagliatelle and taglierini might sound, look and taste the same to the uninitiated, but tell that to a native of Emilia-Romagna or Piedmont and they'll have a lot to say on the matter.

While the flat, ribbon-shaped pastas are both made with butter, flour and eggs they come from different regions of Italy so the sauces they're served with are vastly different – as are the stories behind them. 

When you're eating pasta in Italy, you're not just eating a dish but the history of the region it comes from.

Piera Pagnoni, a third generation sfoglina (pasta maker) from Bologna upholds the tradition of making handmade sfoglie (sheets) of pasta at Melbourne restaurant King and Godfree, and believes you can tell a lot about an Italian person from the type of pasta they grew up eating.

"If you're from the north part of Italy, you eat pasta all'uova, made with eggs, and those from the south eat pasta di casa, which is just semolina flour and water," she says.

Fresh egg pasta symbolises the wealth of northerners in Italy.

"The north was richer, so it could afford to use egg in the dough and it has lots of filled pasta shapes, such as tortellini, ravioli and agnolotti stuffed with meat or ricotta and richer sauces made from butter.

"Those from the south would have just the pasta finished with a little bit of sauce, because there was no money for filling. If you had milk and could make a little ricotta, you'd sell it at the market as a way to earn money. In the north, you could afford to keep it for your family."  

"Those from the south would have just the pasta finished with a little bit of sauce, because there was no money for filling."

In The Geometry of Pasta, authors Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kennedy, list over 100 pasta shapes and the sauces that match each of them, from Sicily's coiled busiati served with an almond pesto Trapanese to Abruzzo's bell-shaped torchio pasta with its bone marrow-based sauce.

Hildebrand and Kennedy track the changes in pasta shapes from the south, where semolina dough is cut roughly by hand; moving further north to south-central Italy, where dough is extruded into neat shapes to be dried; and finishing in the north, where silky egg-rich pasta ribbons are stuffed and shaped perfectly, like fine jewels.

Extruded and dried semolina pasta hails from south-central Italy. The omission of egg means pasta dries quicker.

Regional specialities 

John Hajek, professor of Italian studies at the University of Melbourne, agrees that specific pasta shapes are linked with certain regions in Italy.  

"You have bigoli from Veneto, a noodle-like spaghetti made with flour, butter and duck eggs. Ligura has trofie, rolled and twisted strands of pasta that aren't as long as spaghetti. Abruzzo has spaghetti alla chitarra, which have the same long strands but are square rather than round in shape," he says.  

Hail from the north for a night
Pasta dough

Making pasta is one of those things that sounds more complicated than it really is, and makes far more sense once you’ve watched someone do it. Do some research; look online to watch people making dough and practise until it makes sense.

Another factor in the egg vs no egg dough is the longevity of the pasta.  

"Spaghetti, which comes from the south, is just flour and water. It dries quickly and is easier to keep," Hajek says.  

"Egg doughs take longer to dry out, but it also makes the pasta shapes good for soups. It's why tortellini, which were traditionally eaten once or twice a year on special occasions, are served with brodo, broth, rather than sauce. 

"It's not just the pasta shape that tells you about the region's history, it's what you eat with it as well. You can work it out by the sauce, the pasta and what fat is used. Northerners tend to use butter and pig's fat while those in the centre and south use olive oil."  

Olive oil-based sauces are more common in Italy's south, and butter or pork-based sauces popular in the north.

The source of the sauce 

The idea of pasta served in a red tomato sauce is a modern concept.  

"The tomato was a relatively recent introduction to Europe," Professor Hajek says. "Tortellini with sauce is not a traditional dish. The tortellini from Emilia Romagna are always served in brodo." 

Then you have the basil-based pesto sauce from Liguria while Rome's most popular sauces are based on dairy; cheese for cacio e pepe and egg for carbonara.

"The tomato was a relatively recent introduction to Europe," Professor Hajek says. "Tortellini with sauce is not a traditional dish. The tortellini from Emilia Romagna are always served in brodo." 

Further south, orecchiette from Puglia are traditionally teamed with a bitter broccoli and olive oil sauce and along the Amalfi coastline you'll find in bianco (white), olive-oil based sauces, which form the basis for dishes such as spaghetti alle vongole.   

The northern regions used butter and cheese sauces, because it was easier to source dairy while the southern part of Italy leant towards tomatoes and olive oil, which grew plentifully in the region. 

"Even if you only had a little land, you could put olive trees there," Pagnoni says.  "But 99 per cent of farmers in the south couldn't afford to buy a cow."

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