“The oldest myth in gourmet mythology is the heroic tale of Marco Polo, intrepid Renaisssance Venetian traveler, and how he imported pasta from the court of Kublai Khan in Cathay.  Evidence for noodles in Italy before Polo is abundant…One hardly needs to point out how pervasive this form of quick bread, whether extruded, rolled or stamped out, is in the alimentary universe of the descendants of the Romans.  No clear evidence exists to explain this decisive dietary choice.  But it is inarguable.  Italians even boil pasta for their dogs.  For themselves, the choice is almost infinite.  So it would be foolish to single out a single noodle, and yet spaghetti is clearly the poster bambino of the category.”  Raymond Sokolov, The Cook’s Canon

Although there is little agreement on which of several competing cultures invented noodles, all agree that they are an ancient food.  Archaeological discoveries made in 2005 at Lajia, the so-called “Pompeii of China” southwest of Bejing, indicate that the Chinese, later inventers of paper, gunpowder and the compass, were making noodles from the cereal grass millet during the Neolithic period, as early as 1700 BCE.

Experts also point to stucco reliefs in an Etruscan tomb at Ceveteri, north of Rome, that represent kitchen utensils remarkably like modern pasta-making tools (other experts, of course, reply that these tools could have had other purposes)The Etruscans inhabited the areas of western Italy that are now Tuscany, Latium and Umbria from the Iron Age to Roman times (from the 11th century BCE to the 1st century BCE), and we know that, by 400 BCE, Etruscans made lasagne-type noodles.  Their successors, the Romans, also made a dough they called lagana.  In the first cookbook ever written, Apicus, a Roman writer from the 1st century AD, describes lagana as a pasta made to enclose timballi and pies, layered with seasonings and meat or fish.  But these noodles were not boiled as lasagne is today;  instead, they were baked on hot stones or in ovens, and may have had more in common with modern pizza than with pasta.

Some scholars credit Arabs with the invention of dried noodles that, once boiled, provided a quick and nutritious meal.  The first clear record of dried noodles is the Jerusalem Talmud, written in Aramic in the 8th century AD.  Unlike fresh noodles, which had to be eaten soon after they were made, dried noodles could be preserved and transported by caravan over the 5,000 mile Silk Road, in use at least since Roman times, that linked Xi’an, China with Turkey and other points.

They also could be carried by armies in the 8th century Arab invasions of Sicily and southern Italy.  The southern Italian climate proved so favorable to growing the hard durhum wheat necessary for dried pasta that, by the 12th century, Arab colonies in Italy, such as Palermo, began producing dried pasta in quantity.  In 1154, shortly before the death of Sicilian monarch King Roger II (and about a century before the birth of Marco Polo), a court chronicler and geographer named Abu Abdullah Mohammed al Idrisi completed a detailed geographical survey of Sicily.  Called the Book of Roger, his survey makes casual mention of a form of pasta made from hard wheat and shaped into long slender strands that was manufactured in large quantity in the Sicilian town of Trabia for export to other regions. The Arab roots of pasta can still be tasted in Sicily today: Sciabbo, a Christmas lasagne dish eaten in Enna in Central Sicily, is flavored with typical Near Eastern spices including cinnamon, raisins and sugar, and there are many versions of pasta with eggplant, a vegetable introduced to Sicily by Arabs around the year 1000.

Italian medieval manuscripts make numerous references to pasta, including the enthusiasm Boccaccio expresses for macaroni and cheese in Calandrino, and noodles are featured in medieval cookery manuals in Syria and Baghdad.  So what, exactly, did the intrepid Marco Polo bring back when he returned to Venice in 1295 from his two decade long sojourn at the court of Kublai Khan in Cathay?  Since, by the MiddleAges, noodles were well established in both China and Italy, he clearly made no introductions in that regard.  It has been argued, however, that while the Chinese may not have invented dried noodles (durum wheat was not native to China), they had discovered another important innovation; by isolating gluten, the protein compound that gave dough the elasticity to stretch and be kneaded, they could make noodles out of other starches including rice or soybean flours.  These soft, perishable noodles were the basis for Chinese dumplings and, after Polo’s return, they may also have been the basis for ravioli.

And what, exactly, did Italians contribute to the birth of pasta?  For one thing, they turned the making of dried pasta into a world-wide business.  And Italians were responsible for a second important contribution, pasta sauce.  Because wealthy Italians did not eat with their hands, they enjoyed pasta in the old Roman lasagne form or in the new Chinese dumpling form.  Around 1700, a chamberlain to King Ferdinand II discovered that strands of cooked pasta could be twirled on a fork with four short prongs, allowing those with delicate manners to enjoy spaghetti without soiling their hands, and putting dried pasta on banquet tables throughout Italy and, ultimately, the world.

A hundred years later, after dried pasta accompanied the voyages of discovery to the New World and yellow cherry tomatoes (Italians still call tomatoes pomi d’oro, golden apples) came back to Europe with Christopher Columbus at the turn of the 16th century and Hernando Cortez in 1592, spaghetti met tomato sauce, and the rest is history.

Pasta reappeared in the United States in the hands of Thomas Jefferson, who returned from a trip to Naples while serving as minister to France from 1785 to 1789 with crates of maccheroni and a pasta making machine, which he promptly redesigned.  Macaroni and cheese was popular in the United States during the Civil War, but it was not until the massive wave of Italian Immigration that began toward the end of the 19th century that pasta became an American staple.  From 1880 to 1921, more than 5 million Italians immigrated to America, three quarters of them from regions south of Rome, many from Campania.  Often these immigrants assimilated by becoming grocers and, later, restauranteurs, resulting in an American idea of Italian food that featured the tomato paste, oregano and garlic they carried in their stores and featured on their menus.  And, since there were fewer varieties of fruit, vegetables and cheese available in America than in Italy, but meat was cheap and plentiful, Italian cooks adapted their recipes to new conditions, creating Italian-American specialties, like spaghetti and meatballs, served in large portions with lots of meat and heavy seasonings.

Three of the recipes that follow are for great classic pastas made in and around Rome.  The simplest, spaghetti alla gricia, is sauced only with pork and sharp cheese.  If eggs are added, it becomes spaghetti alla carbonara, named for the charcoal makers that created the dish.  And the addition of onions and tomatoes creates spaghetti all’ Amatriciana, from the nearby town of Amatricia.

The common denominator for these dishes is bacon.  In Italy, the first choice would be guanciale, pork jowl that is salted and cured, but not smoked.  Guanciale is often hard to find in the United States, so that pancetta, pork belly that is salted and cured but not smoked, is often substituted.   A third choice is American bacon, pork belly that is salted, cured and smoked, although some may disapprove of that selection:  Consider Raymond Sokolov, author of The Cook’s Canon, “Why bother making the dish with an ingredient that so radically changes its taste? …. Perhaps the baconisti are willing to forgive themselves this barbarism because they are too besotted with the way the hot noodles cook the eggs in the serving bowl to give up the dish just because of a quibble over pancetta.”  If you choose to use pancetta, recognize that it may render less fat than guanciale or American bacon.  The latter may require you to drain off some fat, while pancetta will not.