Pasta is the quintessential Italian comfort food, as ubiquitous as pizza or tomato paste. A descendant of Asian noodles, pasta arrived in the Mediterranean thousands of years ago by way of Arabic nomads. Although pasta did not originate from Italy, the Italians were the first to popularise it as a main dish. From bowties and ravioli to penne and gnocchi, there are hundreds of different dried pasta shapes in Italy today, each with its own regional history.
There are two main types of pasta: dried pasta and fresh pasta. Fresh pasta is not superior to dried pasta — it is simply different, like hard and soft cheese.
Dried pasta teams up best with oil-based sauces, such as ragù, whereas fresh pasta is optimal for cream sauces.
Whether dried or fresh, pasta is a complex carbohydrate that provides the body with a long-lasting source of fuel due to the fact that it is digested slowly.
The ingredients used to make dried pasta are durum wheat semolina flour and water, which was once rolled into sheets, cut into various shapes and left to dry until hard. In Italy, the dish was prized for its long shelf life and quickly became a staple of everyday eating.
Early Italian pasta was oven-baked, not boiled. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that it wasn’t until the early 19th century that pasta was combined with tomato sauce, solidifying what has become a famous, bread-and-butter combination.
Today, most dried pasta is commercially made through an extrusion process by using dyes that contain the desired shape one requires and it is almost always served al dente, which means it is cooked just enough to retain a firm texture. In Italy, dried pasta is never served soft and rubbery.
Historically, fresh pasta has been preferred by Northern Italians. To make fresh pasta, eggs and flour are mixed into dough that’s kneaded and cut by hand or machine to create the desired shape, such as lasagne sheets or raviolis.
Fresh pasta has a much shorter shelf life than its dried counterpart. If it is not consumed on the day it was made, it must be kept refrigerated and eaten within a relatively short timeline.
Italy is the world’s leading pasta producer, with over 3.3 million tons of pasta produced each year. Compare that to the 35,000 tons annually produced in the United Kingdom.