Few dishes are as recognizable, as beloved, and as wholeheartedly cherished as pasta. A staple of the Italian trattoria, ristorante, and osteria; served in Western diners in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and West Africa; and the center of restaurants and cafes around the world, few dishes are as recognized, as accessible, and as enjoyed as pasta.
Pasta — lauded for its humble origins, its endless possibilities, and the inexpensive ingredients used to make pasta — has become the base dish for expert home cooks and respected chefs. In the United States, waves of Italian immigrants arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, making them the fifth largest immigrant group in the nation. Their influence became quickly apparent in the United States, as pizza, pasta, rice dishes, and sandwiches began popping up on menus nationwide. Though Italian is clearly in its roots, Italian American immigrants have popularized the dish throughout the United States, adding American culinary traditions and patterns to the dish. Today, you’re hard-pressed to find a Western restaurant that doesn’t offer at least one sort of pasta, and the varieties can vary by region. In Texas and Louisiana, for example, one might find Cajun pasta on a restaurant menu — penne pasta bathed in a pink sauce, and seasoned with the spicy flavors of the bayou. Lemony pastas often dominate in the northeast, and various cultures have found their own ways to incorporate their flavors and spices into the dish, from the pasta itself, to the sauce it’s
For most Americans, particularly those cooking at home, pasta comes in a dried form. Usually sold by the pound, varieties like linguini, rigatoni, spaghetti, pappardelle, and more, are cooked simply by dropping the dried noodles in a large pot of salted water, and boiling until tender. But amid a pandemic that changed the entire world, many home cooks remembered that there’s another way, a fresher way, and a more traditional way to enjoy pasta.
Fresh pasta is made in an entirely different way than the more commonly known dried pasta. It’s more tender and usually takes less time to cook, and it’s great for cream and dairy-based sauces, among other sauces like tomato sauce. Fresh pasta, typically associated with the kitchens of Italian grandmothers in small villages in Italy, has humble roots. Emerging out of the Italian countryside, making pasta was formerly a regular activity, according to cooking teacher Carla Tomasi.
“When people try to elevate pasta to a mystical thing, I say no,” Tomasi said of pasta’s essence. “Think of how pasta started. Pasta started in farmhouses, pasta started in large families. People had to be fed in the war, before the war, after the war, during the war. They had eggs. In the south, they made pasta with water. So it’s nothing too difficult about it, it’s just something very, very simple. People used to make it every day.”
Though most people in Italy today aren’t making pasta daily, Tomasi still believes there’s an appeal, especially amid the ongoing pandemic. People around the world pulled out their rolling pins, stand mixers, and pasta attachments, eager to learn the art and put their hands to good use.
“I can tell you categorically that no one makes pasta everyday anymore. I do make pasta once a week, because I like it, it’s a nice feel, and for me, it’s really easy. Also, because I mix it with the food processor rather than mix it by hand. I’m all for machinery that makes your life much easier. It has not lost the appeal. Pasta still has a huge appeal. But it’s just not an everyday appeal.”
Though making pasta isn’t an everyday activity for most Italians, many still value the art, especially because of the humble roots of the dish. While pasta can be found in some of the nation’s most expensive restaurants, it started as a dish that was largely for survival.
“When people started to make pasta, homemade paste did not start in the city,” Tomasi said. “They started in the country. They had eggs, and they needed something to feed their families, and they didn’t have access to shops. That’s basically how it started. They didn’t consider it a special food, it was just food. Because it was a necessity.”
Based just outside of Rome, Carla has spent her career teaching locals, travelers, and people around the world about Italian cooking, and some of the history behind it. This love for the cuisine dates back to Carla’s childhood, where Italian food was simply part of her day-to-day life. Pasta making, however, was mesmerizing to a young Carla. Carla’s maternal grandmother was a terrific cook, and often looked to pasta to feed a very large family. Many Italians turned to pasta during World War I and II to feed their families without having to purchase expensive ingredients. Fresh pasta has always remained central to Italian cooking overtime, making pasta became less of a regular event, and more reserved for holidays, weekends, and special occasions. Now, many Italians buy dried pasta from local shops and trusted pasta makers in their towns.
“The industrial revolution was in Italy in the 60s, not in the 1800s. And people started you know, to buy pasta,” Tomasi said.
Tomasi watched her grandmother Maria make pasta. She lived in Rome and came to Tomasi’s region every other Sunday with a rolling pin. Tomasi would watch her use the rolling pin to make pasta, and she realized it was truly an art. Tomasi really dug into the art of making pasta as an adult after living abroad for a long time. She recalled her grandmother making pasta, and she fell right back into the tradition.
“This love affair started, and it’s really one of the most beautiful things. I love handling pasta, it flows out of my hands, and it gives me great pleasure to make it.”
Fresh pasta of the past was traditionally made with a rolling pin, similar to how Tomasi’s grandmother made her pasta. This method took lots of elbow grease and stamina, but could produce excellent pasta that could be shaped into pasta varieties like ravioli, and other shapes. While pasta makers became more common-place in the United States in the 1900s, it took some time for the world to navigate using both. Tomasi has worked with a rolling pin and a pasta machine. She’s heard the debates between the rolling pin and pasta maker (she believes both are great options for different reasons), but is more focused on demystifying the pasta making process for people who want to learn the art. Having worked as a traveling cook, Tomasi has spent years teaching people how to create their own innovation using the usual basic ingredients: flour, eggs, and water.
“Let’s demystify pasta. You need a bowl, you need a fork, you need flour, you need eggs. And you need a custom machine, if you want to do it.”
To be clear, there are lots of nuances. Some pastas don’t require eggs, some pasta makers use olive oil in their dough, and there are many varieties of pasta that require different ingredients. Regardless of the ingredients or recipe used, Tomasi noted that good pasta relies on practice.
“You really need to be constant with it. I suppose it’s like playing an instrument, or it’s like going on a bicycle. You learn it. But then if you don’t go on a bicycle for a few years, you can lose your balance a little bit. It’s the same thing when you roll pasta by hand: you need to have a rhythm. Your hands need to be able to tell you that the pasta dough is the right consistency.”
In many pasta dough recipes, recipe developers often call for Tipo 00 flour, a milled Italian flour that creates a pasta dough that is silkier, and provides a fresh chewiness to the cooked pasta. This pasta can be found online or at an Italian market. Tomasi says this flour can be exchanged for all-purpose flour, which is similar.
Some will also call for durum flour, an unbleached flour milled multiple times from hard wheat. Getting comfortable with these flour types can help home cooks become even more familiar with making pasta. While using rolling pins is an option, many people — including cooks in Italy — use pasta attachments to roll and cut the dough.
“You just need to adjust,” said Tomasi. “One is not better than the other.”
Making pasta takes the right ingredients, sure, but it also takes practice. Ahead of making pasta dough, home cooks can also start simply by making their own sauce. Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce is a classic sauce recipe to have on hand, and recipes for vodka sauce, homemade carbonaras, and other pasta sauces and varieties can help cooks get more familiar with making pasta without the usual dried, store-bought pasta and canned sauce. “An A-Z of Pasta: Stories, Shapes, Sauces, Recipes,” is one of many books that seeks to turn pasta-making into a digestible process, even for the new cook. And for Tomasi, being a source for new and experienced cooks to learn about the many forms of pasta is what brings her joy.
“You can always sort of play with pasta,” said Tomasi. “What you make can change from day to day. I love it.”