How pasta became so popular across the world

Forget low carb, have some pasta.
Forget low carb, have some pasta.
Image: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
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Listen to the third episode of the Quartz Obsession podcast season 3 on the world’s favorite food: pasta.

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Kira Bindrim: If you take a tour through world history, one food will keep cropping up: pasta. Horace wrote about it back in the 1st century, and there’s a rumor that Marco Polo imported pasta to Italy in the 13th century. One hundred years after that, dried pasta took off because it was easy to store on ships. And in the 18th century, you’ll find the first written record of pasta with tomato sauce in a 1790 cookbook.

As prevalent as pasta is all over the world, its origin story and its path to global domination was paved in Italy. The country spent centuries perfecting pasta shapes, pasta production, and pasta preparation—while also exporting an aspirational idea of Mediterranean life that is still associated with pasta today. These days, Italy is responsible for 30% of the $22 billion global pasta market.

But to maintain the popularity of Italian pasta? That might require rethinking some of the fundamentals of one of the world’s favorite dishes. The complexity of mass production, the shifting winds of geopolitics, and the threat of climate change all stand to impact how pasta is made, and who is making most of the world’s supply.

This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas, and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host, Kira Bindrim. Today: pasta, how a local dish thrives as a global staple.

I’m joined now by Annalisa Merelli, who goes by Nalis in our newsroom. Nalis has covered all kinds of things for Quartz, including politics, healthcare, and inequality—but she is also our foremost expert on pasta. Why is that, Nalis?

Annalisa Merelli: Well, I’m Italian. And by the way, the Marco Polo thing is a lie. It’s not true. It’s been debunked. It’s a rumor that was started by an American program, I think it was either a TV show or radio show. And then it kind of went around and then historians had to debunk it. But no, we were making pasta before Marco Polo went to China and came back.

Kira Bindrim: Understood. Listener, let’s put it on the record: Marco Polo did not import pasta to Italy from China. That’s just a rumor. You’ve heard it from an Italian here yourself. So is it fair to assume that, by virtue of being an Italian for your entire life, you have been eating and thinking about pasta maybe a little more than the rest of us?

Annalisa Merelli: Yeah, I think about pasta a lot, like, a lot a lot, even though I actually don’t eat as much of it anymore since I moved to the US. But I mean, I still eat a lot of pasta. And yes, it’s just part of our upbringing. I ate it four times a week growing up. Yeah, it’s what I’m made of.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, now that we have established the illegitimacy of the Marco Polo rumor, I want to start by asking about the true history of pasta within Italy. And maybe the best slash most blasphemous first question to ask is: Is Italy the birthplace of pasta as we know it today?

History of pasta

Annalisa Merelli: Yes. So the idea of mixing up wheat flour and water and making a piece of dough that you can eat—like that’s not exclusively Italian, that was not created in Italy. But pasta as we know it now, so the kind of thing that you right now would buy in a box and you know, boil in hot water, that is an Italian invention, we did that. And the first place where that emerged was Sicily in around 1200. And that is the first instance that we know, it’s documented by chronicles of the era, that pasta was made outside the home in workshops, and it was sold and traded. So it had become, you know, not just a production that people would make at home for sustaining their families, but just a product that you would market.

Kira Bindrim: So fresh pasta has been consumed in Italy since the Greek colonies. In the 1200s, dry pasta gets introduced in Sicily, and then manufacturers start making it and trading it. Okay. Has pasta always been wildly popular in Italy, or all over Italy? Or is there some variation or historical shifts there?

Annalisa Merelli: Homemade pasta was popular in Italy throughout, yes. And it’s interesting to see the different variations that were regional. So in the north, because the type of wheat which is called durum wheat which you need to make dry pasta, the hard pasta, wasn’t available, you had different kinds of pasta that it was made with eggs—which still exists, tagliatelle is the progeny of that. And you know, you’d have filled pasta or lasagna, the type that we know now, with egg. And a lot of different shapes and different kinds of homemade pasta were popping up around the country. In fact, there were even some sort of laws and regulations that were put up by the Vatican, in Florence, in all sorts of places. But again, the kind of dry pasta that we know now to be the quintessential pasta, that kind of faded away after the sort of initial Sicilian success and came back several centuries after to become a marketed product, and then eventually give birth to what is now the mass-produced pasta.

Kira Bindrim: What is a good way to talk about like the movement of pasta from the south to the north?

Annalisa Merelli: Essentially, this is what happened. There were areas of the country that had this type of flour, and they realized that you can dry out the pasta so it keeps for a long time. And workshops popped up particularly in Genoa and in Naples—more in Naples than in Genoa, but Genoa is important because it was a mercantile area—where they would make a lot of it and they would trade it. And that is the kind of pasta that took hold because that is the type that you can store for a long time, that eventually was producing mass quantities, that progressively with modernization and industrial production was made first in larger workshops and then with big machines. From those two points, which were Naples and Genoa, you could spread around the country as a product, not so much as a tradition itself.

Kira Bindrim: What we think of as stereotypical Italian pasta today is largely started in the south, migrated within Italy to the north, became more common, and then ultimately was exported outside of Italy?

Annalisa Merelli: Exactly.

Kira Bindrim: Got it. And around when did Italy go from pasta as a regional handmade dish to mass production?

Mass-production of a regional staple

Annalisa Merelli: Well, it didn’t go in one jump. But a key moment is 1600 when workshops popped up in Naples and in Genoa, and they started creating quantities of pasta that could be stored, that could be traded. Genoa was a mercantile area so they could sail for a long time, they could be exported very easily. And there’s records, I found this record that I thought was very interesting that Parma, which is in the north of Italy, it’s north of Bologna, and it’s where today’s Barilla established, the way that they were describing the workshops that they were making the pasta is of the ‘Genoa type’ of pasta. Which was different from what they were making there, which was fresh pasta made out of eggs and you know, like tagliatelle or ravioli or filled pasta, anyway. So that was kind of imported as a product from within Italy, too. They were copying a way of making pasta that was not exactly what they were doing, it was just easier to make and easier to produce in bigger quantities.

Kira Bindrim: But when do we go to like industrial-level, you know, not just a machine, but like the biggest machines that are making pasta, and now it’s spreading all over the world?

Annalisa Merelli: There’s two moments that are important from a technological point of view. One is, there was a moment when they invented artificial drying of pasta, that was 1914. Artificial drying of pasta made it so that you could dry it faster than it used to be. And to this day, it’s important to know that high-quality pasta takes a long time to dry—it can take up to 40 hours to do so. But since 1914, you can kind of recreate those conditions and so you can sort of decide how fast you want to dry your pasta. And then the second thing was a machine that was basically making pasta industrially. And it was making a ton of it and you did it continuously and create, you know, enormous quantities of pasta. And coincidentally, that machine was created in 1933 in Parma, which is where Barilla is. And you know, like Barilla, the forefather had a workshop in town, and it was inherited by the children and the grandchildren. And then they acquired this invention, and then that really started creating a large production. And it wasn’t really until after World War II that then pasta kind of you know, the commerce and the international import-export of pasta became so large as we know it now.

Kira Bindrim: So it’s really a story in terms of modern pasta—not a phrase I’ve said before—but it’s really sort of the last 100 years where we went from machine production but to mass machine production to mass exportation.

Annalisa Merelli: Yes, and I would say, maybe in terms of the familiarity with box pasta and all that, even less so. So, for instance, my grandma, would tell you that initially they would buy it, it wasn’t packaged. It would come in, I imagine, big boxes or like big bags and you buy a bunch of pasta from a larger container.

Does the shape of pasta matter?

Kira Bindrim:

There’s something I’ve always been curious about and I have to dig into it with you, which is: We need to stop and talk about pasta shapes. I have questions and I want to know the answers. What is the purpose of the pasta shapes? Why are there different shapes of pasta from an Italian’s perspective?

Annalisa Merelli: So I would divide pasta into four categories. There’s long pasta, which can be hollow like bucatini or full like spaghetti. There’s short pasta—similarly, you’d have your penne or your fusilli. Then there’s pastina, which is a tiny type of pasta that typically we use in broth or soups. And then there’s everything that’s made with eggs. So that I would put in it tagliatelle, lasagne, tortellini—like everything that you know, is made with eggs added to the to the flour. Different shapes do different things. Long pasta does certain things, it’s good for certain sauces. Short pasta is good for other types of sauces. And also traditionally, we have marriages of pasta with specific type of sauces. So you’re not going to put, you know, ragu on spaghetti, which is a classic American habit. But also, there’s up to like 350 types of pasta. I don’t know 350 types of pasta, but I do know that I’ll go home and my mom would make a tomato sauce that could go with several types of pasta, and she’ll ask me, ‘Do you want fusilli? Do you want penne?’ You know, it’s part of the fun.

Kira Bindrim: Are there any shape controversies in Italy?

Annalisa Merelli: Penne. There’s two schools of thought, except one is wrong.

Kira Bindrim: Great start, okay.

Annalisa Merelli: So there’s two types of penne. One is penne lisce, which is the smoother type, like the outside is smooth, and then there’s penne rigate, the outside is ridged. And there is a very interesting story behind how the ridged one was developed, which is a more recent development of the shape of penne and is entirely dependent on the mass production of pasta. So it’s not an original type. It doesn’t do what people think it does, people think it keeps the sauce better, it doesn’t. And it’s a sort of industrial development that made a lower-quality pasta more palatable to the masses. People who will buy penne with ridges on it will not buy the smooth type of pasta. During the pandemic, these pictures were all over the internet where the aisles of would be empty because everybody was going and like buying everything they could at the supermarket, except for penne lisce, which is this smooth type. Those photos, by and large, were from the north of the country, where ridged pasta is more popular. And, you know, in the south, I bet you would have maybe been the opposite.

Kira Bindrim: After the break, how pasta went global.

[ad break]

Kira Bindrim: One of the things I love about pasta is carbs, of course. But the other thing I like about it is that it’s super easy to make. And I have to imagine that has something to do with why it became so popular in the rest of the world. Tell me a little bit more about that trajectory. We’ve talked about how pasta went from being handmade and local, and then sort of spread throughout Italy. How do we get from there to pasta being popular everywhere?

Pasta’s growing popularity across the world

Annalisa Merelli: They actually did some research on this, which I thought was fascinating. And they found out that even compared to other types of foods that are equally easy to make and versatile, pasta had a special appeal because it was associated with an Italian lifestyle. And so became really popular in the 60s and 70s when that was sort of aspirational. So the idea of Dolce Vita, and people living well and having lavish lunches with pasta and all that, was instrumental in the popularity. So there was an element of it being aspirational and associated with good living that maybe other types of equally simple food didn’t have.

Kira Bindrim: Where does the marketing of pasta fit into it? Like you’ve mentioned Barilla, I also immediately think of Barilla when I think of pasta. Is that brand as synonymous with pasta everywhere in the world as it is in the US, and it sounds like also in Italy?

Annalisa Merelli: Yeah, Barilla is the biggest maker of pasta in the world and it is associated with pasta pretty much everywhere, certainly in Italy. Barilla created an aspirational image of the Italian household for Italians. The ads that Barilla put out there really associated pasta with a specific image of the Italian middle class. In the 80s we had ads for Barilla that still would bring you to tears because they were, you know, these beautiful stories of families that were waiting for a gorgeous little kid would come home from school, and the kid rescues a kitten, and the pasta’s getting ready, and it’s a little late, and the kid makes it home just in time with the little kitten, and the pasta’s al dente.

[Barilla ad: dove c’è Barilla, c’è casa]

Annalisa Merelli: It’s this mythological idea of living in Italy that never really existed.

Kira Bindrim: So Barilla sold the sort of image of the middle-class Italian lifestyle to Italians, and then also ultimately took a version of that and exported it out to everyone else.

Annalisa Merelli: Mm hmm. Yeah.

Kira Bindrim: That’s very interesting.  I don’t understand that commercial. Why would the kitten, what is the market there? That you can save a kitten in the time it takes to make…

Annalisa Merelli: No, it’s more like wherever there’s Barilla, there’s a home. And there were these vignettes into these idyllic families where everybody is youngish and everyone is beautiful, creating this atmosphere. And another one is this family where the dad is going away on a work trip, and the little daughter slips as grain of pasta in his pocket. And so when he’s away on work, he finds the pasta in his pocket and thinks about the little girl—it’s just super emotional, but also very Italian. And again, I can’t watch it without crying. I’m not alone. Like, if you go on YouTube and you read the comments, 50% is people being like, ‘I’m crying.’ It’s very much what we are, or what made us believe we are.

Kira Bindrim: My immediate reaction is like, the house is messy and now there’s pasta in your pocket or something. Like, I don’t even know that I’d think my kid put it there.

Annalisa Merelli: No!

Kira Bindrim: I don’t think these commercials are for me.

Annalisa Merelli: They make you just want to be there and be them. You know, you want that happiness.

Kira Bindrim: All right, I want to take something that I asked you earlier and spin it forward, which is: We’ve talked a little bit about why pasta became so popular, which is convenience, it’s delicious, all of that stuff. What does the future of pasta hold for us?

Annalisa Merelli: The biggest is climate change. Dry pasta relies essentially on one type of wheat, durum wheat, which only gets produced in certain parts of the world. Canada is the biggest exporter, actually. Italy doesn’t make nearly enough, and that’s been for a long time, because its production is just so much larger than even what its population needs, so it imports most of it. There’s been already a couple of times when climate change-related depletion of production has raised costs and diminished production—there just isn’t enough, and that’s bound to happen more and more. But going forward, it’s very likely that something that we consider a staple, in part because it’s so cheap to make, might become not quite as ubiquitous and quite as cheap as it is now. And I think one version, and I was doing a bit of research in alternative substances to make, produced to make pasta of—lentils, pulses, there’s other types of wheat that have been used, and other research. Chickpeas is a big new flour that is used to make pasta. I think there’s going to be more of that, more of trying to approximate the taste of something that’s not made of wheat to something that is wheat. But I mean, it’s not the same. Can’t be the same.

Kira Bindrim: I mean, you won’t even eat the wrong penne, so.

Annalisa Merelli: I know, exactly.

Kira Bindrim: No substitute wheat anytime soon. Do you think there’s anything less tangible that might unseat pasta? Like in 50 years, 100 years from now, will we be eating it as much? Can you eat pasta in space?

Annalisa Merelli: There have been reductions in consumption of pasta overall. I think some of it is fashions—we’ve decided carbs are bad, pasta’s bad. So some of it is that. So I think yes, it is possible that we will eat less of it than we do now. Gluten is a big factor, gluten intolerance and allergies have become much more popular. So that also kind of depletes the consumption of pasta. So yeah, I mean, I can see a future in which we eat less of that. Or maybe it’s special. It’s like meat, right? I mean, pasta is far more sustainable to produce than meat. But like, you know, the same way that you’d be like, ‘Oh, I’ll have very little meat,’ you know, when it’s special, like similar, pasta may be the same, where you have it on Sunday, while you wait for your little kid to come back from school.

Kira Bindrim: We can’t have a kitten here, we can’t support this…

Annalisa Merelli: All new kittens, one new kitten every Sunday.

What is the best pasta dish?

Kira Bindrim: Okay, one more question for you. Because when one interviews in Italian about pasta, I think one has to ask: what is the best pasta dish?

Annalisa Merelli: Oh, man, it’s so hard. For me, I think it’s very personal. I think everybody has their own favorite. For me, personally, if you have a good penne with a very, very good tomato sauce, you can’t beat that.

Kira Bindrim: Keep it simple.

Annalisa Merelli: You just can’t.

Kira Bindrim: Penne lisce?

Annalisa Merelli: Yeah. I’m picturing my grandma making, and she does it. So it’s like, you can’t beat that.

Kira Bindrim: What’s the most overrated pasta?

Annalisa Merelli: Oh, that’s a very good question. I mean, but in Italy or everywhere?

Kira Bindrim: Everywhere. I guess either, I would be interested in either.

Annalisa Merelli: I guess here people put, you know, turkey meatball on pasta—like what even is that?

Kira Bindrim: A meatball made out of turkey.

Annalisa Merelli: Well, first problem. And second problem is on top of pasta, which we don’t do poultry sauces on top of pasta because, why? So, yeah. Actually, no, the worst, I don’t even think it’s a meatball, the worst is, a chicken parm you guys call it? When there’s chicken on top of pasta?

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, like spaghetti and then breaded chicken on top.

Annalisa Merelli: Yeah—no, no, no.

Kira Bindrim: All right. Thank you, Nalis, I’m starving now. And this was also a fascinating conversation.

That’s our Obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. Our sound engineer is George Drake and our executive producer is Alex Ossola. The theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to Annalisa Merelli in New York.

If you liked what you heard, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening. Tell your friends about us! Just check if they’re penne lisce or penne rigate people first. Then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s Weekly Obsession email and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.