Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pasta, Buona Pasta

                           Click here or at the end of the text for more photos.

Tell people you are going to Italy and someone will invariably say: "Eat some pasta for me." I'm doing the best I can, but I'm only here for two months and there are hundreds of different pasta dishes in Italy. I'm not sure if a lifetime is long enough to taste them all. 

According to the International Pasta Organization, Italians, not surprisingly, are the world's number one consumers of pasta, eating an average of 26 kilos (57.2 lbs) of pasta per capita each year. That puts them way ahead of second-place Venezuela at 13 kilos per person. The U.S. is in 7th place at 8.8 kilos.

Pasta is not an Italian invention, but seems to have sprung up in various locations around the world. As soon as humans gave up the nomadic life, they began cultivating grain and making various forms of pasta and noodles. Even so, no country is more closely associated with pasta than Italy. 

The 2,600 year-old Etruscan tomb of the Matuna Family in Cerveteri has drawings that resemble pasta-making utensils that are still used in Italy today. The connection between these drawings and pasta has not been scientifically confirmed, however, and the first verified date in the history of pasta in Italy is 1154. In that year, the Arab geographer al Idrisi wrote about "a food made from flour in the form of string" in the area of Palermo in Sicily. He goes on to describe a large farm with many mills that produced pasta that was sent on ships to Muslim and Christian territories. 

Dried pasta made its first documented appearance in a 9th-century Arab cookbook while the oldest existing written recipe in Italy for dried pasta dates to 1474. It appears in a cookbook written by Platina, an historian at the Vatican Library. Dried correctly in the sun, Platina tells us, the pasta will last for two or even three years.  

By the 1500s, Italian pasta makers had formed associations and unlicensed vendors could be fined and imprisoned. In 1641, in an attempt to regulate the pasta trade, Pope Urban VIII issued a papal decree dictating a distance of at least 24 meters between pasta shops. 

In 1554, pasta found the perfect partner, the tomato, which was imported into Italy from the Americas. Pasta with tomato sauce, however, did not become widespread in Italy until the 17th-century when tomatoes began to be cultivated in Italy. Today, Italy is the number one producer of tomatoes in Europe and grows approximately 7 million metric tons annually. 

As in the crushing of grapes for wine, feet were used in commercial pasta making to knead the dough. A machine for this purpose was invented in 1870 by Cesare Spadaccini, but it was not until 1933 that a process capable of performing the entire pasta manufacturing process was copyrighted in Italy. Italy now produces approximately 2,900,000 metric tons of dried pasta per year.

Pisa is historically a maritime republic so many of its pasta dishes are served with fish and shellfish. At this time of year, however, there are lots of pastas made with vegetables and wild greens, which are at their best and freshest in the early spring. Right now, the fields and hillsides around Pisa are filled with people (including me) picking asparagus, wild chard, fennel, dandelion, and various other bitter greens. While out on a bicycle ride a couple of days ago, I came upon some spinach plants growing in an abandoned farm field. Though not exactly wild, they were young and fresh. I collected a bagful and last night, I added the cooked spinach to a traditional ricotta cheese pasta sauce. I also put in some pesto and chopped ripe tomatoes. Here is the recipe:

Pasta with Ricotta Cheese, Pesto, Cherry Tomatoes and Spinach

1 lb pasta (I used penne)
7-8 tablespoons ricotta cheese (I used sheep milk ricotta)
5-6 tablespoons boiling water in which pasta cooked
2-3 tablespoons pesto
12 or so cherry tomatoes chopped (more if you like)
a plateful of cooked spinach, chopped coarsely
salt and pepper
parmesan cheese

Cook pasta in several quarts of boiling, salted water until it is "al dente." Do not overcook.

1.  Put cherry tomatoes, cooked spinach and salt and pepper in a large frying pan. Turn heat to low and warm until tomatoes start to give up their juice. Add a bit of olive oil if needed to keep ingredients from sticking.

2.  Add ricotta, pesto and as much hot pasta water as needed to achieve desired consistency.  Stir to blend ingredients.

3.  Drain pasta and put into frying pan, turning pasta to coat and continuing to warm over low heat.

Serve with grated parmesan cheese, salt and pepper to taste.

An alternative recipe  is ricotta cheese, the zest of one lemon, fresh basil leaves, salt and pepper.  Serve with olive oil and parmesan cheese.

For more photos, click here.

Bon appetito,


Photos (unless otherwise indicated) by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor


  1. OMG, recipes now! I love it. Sounds delicious--I'll have to give this one a go, Geraldine! So the pope regulated pasta? jeeeeeeez. Hahaaaaa.

  2. Guess it proves, Sue, that pasta is a religion in Italy

  3. Now I am hungry and it’s only 8:30 am. Dan.

  4. Yum! Yum! I'm going to try that. It sounds fantastic. Mary

  5. yum. We will be on a plane tomorrow. V.

  6. We'll be making that recipe mighty soon. Thanks. John W.


Thanks for your comments.