Many centuries ago, Italian peasants created a legend about a far away land called Bengodi where food was available in abundance and the people lived a leisurely and pleasant life; fried fish jumped from boiling streams of olive oil, casks of wine grew on grape vines, and the streets were lined with sausages and roasted chickens. The greatest feature of this mythical paradise was a mountain of grated Parmesan from which tortellini and ravioli flowed in rivers of melted butter. History shows us that pasta was already decidedly Italian before the fourteenth century.
Hundreds of years later, after the birth of industrial civilisation in Italy, visitors were struck by the widespread consumption of pasta in the narrow streets of the town. The maccheronaro, or pasta seller, cooked huge quantities of spaghetti behind a portable coal stove in the middle of the street. When it was ready he pulled it out of the pot with his hands and dumped it onto a row of plates garnished with cheese and a tomato. Customers rushed over to hold the spaghetti at arm’s length and let it fall into their open mouths.
The beginning of mechanical production of pasta and the abundant emigration of Italians to the New World made this symbol of Italian cuisine recognised world wide. Its delicious taste, ease of preparation, and nutritional value entrenched pasta in the diets of not only Mediterraneans, but all cultures who came in contact with it.
Pasta is probably the simplest, healthiest and most natural processed food available. Made only from durum wheat and water, it has a long shelf life, is economical, and extremely delicious. Since its beginning, pasta has burst into a myriad of shapes, sizes and flavours. As chef Carlo Middione says, “once you think you have all the varieties tracked down, a new one appears!”
Unlike North Americans who drench their pasta with heavy, meaty sauces, Italians of both the North and the South use lighter sauces as a means to enhance the flavour of an almost perfect food. Though it demands an intuitive sense and a bit of practice, Italian pasta can be cooked to that perfect al dente texture that is chewable, scrumptious, and need not be hidden under a thick, spicy sauce.
Italian pasta exists outside of the realm of another North American tradition as well: waiting ceremoniously at the table until all are present to begin eating. After anticipating its arrival from the rolling boil, one must enjoy pasta the instant it hits the plate at its freshest, most delectable state. Mange bene!!