Excerpt from Gusto: The Very Best of Italian Food and Cuisine
The world’s symbol for the very idea of “Italian,” pasta is a legend known by all.
Italy is the only country where pasta serves as the fundamental foundation of the national cuisine. The multiple types and the variety of flours used illustrate both the central role that pasta plays in the Italian diet and each region's ability to differentiate itself through the forms of pasta it produces. There is egg pasta; pasta made using common wheat, durum wheat, whole grain, partially whole grain, or chestnut flours; pasta colored by the addition of beets, saffron, or spinach; pasta that is dried or fresh, simple or stuffed, short or long, smooth or rough, big or small.
The term “pasta” refers most often to pasta made from dough created by simply adding water (usually warm and not too hard) to ground durum wheat middlings (called semolina). Pasta manufacturers strive to differentiate themselves by maximizing the quality and authenticity of these two simple ingredients. The final step in making pasta is the wire-drawing process which determines both the shape and the consistency of the final product. The shapeless dough is pushed through a die (traditionally bronze and now often Teflon), exits in the desired shape, and then is cut according to the chosen length. Many manufacturers prefer the bronze dies, which produce a pasta with a rougher texture that soaks up sauce more easily. However, such pasta also absorbs a greater amount of water when cooked and therefore more care is required to avoid overcooking it. Teflon dies produce pasta that is smoother and easier to cook, but suitable for lighter sauces rather than robust ones.
The best pastas avoid preservatives altogether. Certainly there is no need of preservatives in fresh pasta that will be eaten immediately, and one of natural dried pasta’s most advantageous qualities is its resistance to spoiling. In addition, it contains no artificial colors: a bundle of spaghetti held up to the light reveals the sunlight absorbed by the grains. Even though dried pasta is now almost entirely an industrial product, with even fresh and stuffed pasta being increasingly produced by both small or large manufacturers rather than grandmothers armed with an apron and a rolling pin, pasta has not lost its special identity.
However, it can still be said that the traditional division between the fresh pasta associated with northern Italy and dried pasta with southern Italy has remained unchanged. This demarcation is both climatic and cultural, originally deriving from two great and distinct traditions: the Romans, in central and northern Italy, tracing back to the sheet pasta, and the Arabs in the South, with their shredded pastry. More than 1,000 years ago, the Arabs introduced to Sicily their “itryah,” pasta in the form of long thin strips that preserved well, making it suitable for the long sea voyages. From Sicily, sea merchants brought it to other parts of the world, likely through the contribution of merchants from Genoa. In contrast, fresh sheet pasta, derived from Roman and Mediterranean traditions and also used in stuffed pasta, originated in and around the medieval Po Valley, where it gave birth to a multitude of other pasta types.