Culture, Mediterranean diet



If you don’t live in Italy, the chances are just a few. Even most Italians themselves probably haven’t come across half of the different pasta shapes made and eaten in their own country! This is because although Italy isn’t a big country, it’s divided into 20 regions. Each of these regions has its own cuisine, including local pasta types and recipes. Many of these are only made and eaten in the region they originated in. So, for example, the pasta the Sicilians eat is often different to what they eat in Rome!

Well, some people maintain there are around 360 types of pasta (shapes & sizes), others claim 400 or more. And of course, if you multiply that by the number of different condiment recipes, then it’s really true to say the world of Italian pasta is pretty infinite!

Pasta is a main staple of the Italian diet and many Italians eat it every day or at least on most days of the week. I recently read that Italians eat about 25 kg of it each a year. That’s about 500g per week! However, contrary to common belief pasta is not unhealthy and does not make you fat. Look at the Italians! Overall, they are considered among the slimmest people in Europe and in global life expectancy ratings, they are near the top of the table with an average lifespan of nearly 83.

Apart from being a staple, pasta also plays a part in Italian food history, family traditions and regional culture. The world of Italian pasta is ancient, fascinating and vast! Without going into a long description of the history of pasta, it’s important to say that this food has existed in some form since the times of Ancient Rome! In fact, evidence of pasta production in Italy has been found in Greek, Roman, Etruscan and Arab archeological remains.

The Romans ate a type of fresh pasta they called ‘laganum’, which many believe to be the ancestor of today’s lasagne. Some of the first evidence of dried pasta, on the other hand, comes from Sicily during the Arab occupation. In about 1145, the Berber geographer Al-Idrisi wrote in his book ‘Libro di Ruggero II’ about a village near Palermo where they produced strings of pasta called itrya which was exported aboard ships bound for ports throughout the Mediterranean.

There are two main types of Italian pasta, fresh and dried. Fresh pasta is also divided into two main types, egg pasta and flour and water pasta. In general, egg pasta is originally a Northern Italian food and flour and water pasta comes from the South. Fresh egg pasta is usually made with soft wheat flour and Southern Italian flour and water pasta is made with durum wheat semolina (hard wheat flour).

All commercial dried pasta in Italy is made with durum wheat semolina, even if it contains eggs. This is actually a legal requirement. Of course, there are types of pasta made with other kinds of flour. Some of these are old traditional pastas like pizzoccheri from Lombardy, which is made with buckwheat flour. Others are more contemporary and were developed to satisfy the modern demand for gluten-free or non-wheat pasta.

When making homemade pasta, it’s better to use a traditional flour for the best result if possible. Italian soft wheat pasta flour is usually called Italian ‘00’ or ‘0’ flour. The numbers refer to how fine the flour is. ‘00’ is the finest of these flours. However, if you can’t find it, all-purpose flour is a good substitute. Durum wheat semolina flour is usually used for Southern Italian fresh pasta types such as orecchiette, cavatelli, fileja, busiate etc.

These pasta types can’t be made with soft wheat flour, as they won’t hold their shape while being cooked. In the same vein, egg pasta such as ravioli or tortelli can’t be made with durum wheat semolina flour because the dough is too hard to produce ‘soft’ pasta dough. The latter can only be done with large industrial kneading machines.

Italy is divided into 20 regions, and each region has its own food traditions. This means the type of pasta they make, how they cook it, what they serve it with and, even, how much they eat varies from region to region! Traditionally, the Northern Italian regions consume less pasta than the south. In the North, they also eat risotto and polenta and make more gnocchi.

Although, there are many types of pasta that can be found throughout Italy, there are also some that are still only eaten in certain regions. The same goes for pasta sauces. Here are 7 types of pasta only found and eaten in the region they come from. You may have heard of or even tried them. But, then again, maybe not!

Busiate from Western Sicily
Busiate is a traditional Sicilian pasta which is popular with pesto or seafood. If you travel to Western Sicily, you will find it on the menu in nearly all the restaurants! This pasta is a long spirally noodle which is formed by twisting strands of pasta dough around a thin metal rod called a ‘ferro’. Each noodle is hollow in the center and looks a bit like the old telephone cords!

There are two theories about the origin of the name of this pasta. Some say it comes from the word ‘busa’, a very thin rod of disa grass that grows on arid and sandy soils. This grass rod was originally believed to be the ‘stick’ that was used to make this pasta. Others think the name comes from the term ‘buso’, a thin iron knitting needle which was used to work wool and cotton in Trapani. Like other fresh pasta from the south of Italy, busiate is made from durum wheat flour and water only, no eggs. Although also available dried, many Sicilians prefer this pasta to be homemade.

Fregola from Sardinia
Fregola or fregula is a small pasta typical of Sardinia. It is made of balls of durum wheat semolina and water, rolled by hand and toasted in the oven. This pasta is uniquely Sardinian and not found in other Italian regions. Given the size and shape of Sardinian fregola, it’s not surprising that it is often called Italian couscous or Sardinian couscous. Fregola has a very ancient history. According to some sources, it was already being made in the tenth century!

Some food historians believe that fregola derives from couscous and was brought to Sardinia by the Phoenicians, the Punics or the Carthaginians. However, many Sardinians are quick to refute that, saying there’s no evidence to prove that it isn’t a Sardinian invention! In general, Sardinians eat fregola in seafood or vegetarian broth dishes or cooked like risotto. Some people add saffron to the pasta dough. Typical recipes include fregola with chickpeas, with mussels or clams, with mixed seafood and with bottarga (mullet or tuna roe).

Corzetti from Liguria
Corzetti or croxetti is a unique kind of pasta from Liguria, in North-west Italy. These flat round pasta medallions are embossed with an emblem or design made with a special wooden stamp or mold. Historically, this pasta dates back to the Middle Ages. Some food historians believe the name derives from the crozetto a 14th century Genoan coin. Both the crozetto and corzetti pasta medallions traditionally had a cross on one side.

So, both names most probably also come from the Latin word ‘crux’ meaning cross. During the Renaissance, noble families had their cooks stamp the pasta circles with their coat of arms. The tool for stamping the pasta was handed down from generation to generation and was a gift that a father-in-law made to his daughter-in-law at the time of her wedding. Ligurians like to eat corzetti with a meat sauce, a simple dressing of olive oil, marjoram and pine nuts or with pesto, green beans and potatoes.

Gargati from Veneto
Gargati is a fresh egg pasta tube eaten and made only in the Veneto region in Northern Italy. Although there is a similar looking pasta known as ‘subioti’. Traditionally gargati is one of two types of pasta made using a hand operated pasta extruder called a bigolaro. The bigolaro was invented in the 1600s and was how Venetians used to make bigoli, the most well-known fresh pasta from Veneto. Once upon a time nearly all Venetian families had a bigolaro (also known as a torchio).

Nowadays, you can still find them in a few homes and restaurants. My neighbour has one handed down through generations and is still used! Gargati pasta tubes are quite firm. In fact, this pasta needs a bit of cooking time, considering it’s fresh. The hole in the middle is small and the sides of the pasta tube quite thick. Traditionally, each gargati pasta tube is about 5-6 cm in length and 1.2 cm in diameter and is ridged (rigati) with a rough surface. The word gargati comes from the local dialect word for esophagus, ‘gargarozzo’. Venetians often pair this pasta with a seasonal mixed meat and veg ragu known as ‘il consiero’.

Fileja from Calabria
Fileja, also known as maccarruna, maccarruni or filedda in the local dialect, is an ancient type of Calabrian pasta which originated in the Calabrian province of Vibo Valentia. Usually 3 to 4mm thick at most, and slightly light yellow in colour, Fileja is shaped like a screw which has been elongated. Some people also refer to this pasta as fusilli. Although actually quite different in shape to the fusilli most of us know and eat, fileja is similar to original types of fusilli.

Even though dried fileja is available, this pasta is still mostly homemade using a method which has been passed down from generation to generation. Like many Southern Italian homemade pastas, fileja is made from simple ingredients, just hard wheat flour, water and salt and no eggs. This is often the pasta of choice for typical Calabrian recipes on Sunday or holidays. It’s traditionally eaten with a ground pork ragu or a simple tomato sauce sometimes flavoured with spicy Calabrian Nduja.

Maccheroncini di Campofilone from Le Marche
Maccheroncini di Campofilone is a 600-year-old Italian pasta which is particular to the Le Marche region in Central Italy. Made with a lot of eggs and durum wheat semolina flour, these fine pasta strands are sometimes referred to as a type of angel hair pasta. Like many regional pasta types, Maccheroncini di Campofilone started in the kitchens of the poor. Italians say ‘la cucina povera’. It became popular among the peasant and farming families of the region as a way to to have a year-round supply of dried egg pasta.

Over time, it came to be considered a delicacy. There are references to this pasta in correspondence belonging to the Abbey of Campofilone and documents from the Council of Trento in 1560. In some ancient recipe books, it was described as an unusual pasta which was so delicate that it melted in the mouth. And that is how I would describe it too! It’s traditionally served with a slow cooked ragu made with ground chicken, pork and beef and beef marrow bones.

Cjarsons from Friuli Venezia Giulia
Cjarsons, also called cjalzons or cjalsonos, is an ancient traditional filled pasta (ravioli) from Friuli, particularly the Alpine region of Carnia. Although of peasant origin, this pasta has truly unique and complex flavours. In fact, the main characteristic of most cjarsons is that they are filled with a mixture of sweet and savoury ingredients. The origin of this pasta is historically linked to the cramârs, spice traders who crossed the mountains on foot to sell spices from Venice in Austria, Germany and Hungary.

When they came back home after months away, they emptied the drawers of their portable spice box (called a crame or crassigne) and their wives used the spices that remained as ingredients for cjarsons, to celebrate their safe return. Cjarsons can be very rich and elaborate or simpler. Some recipes have a lot of ingredients in the filling. In fact, the filling differs from town to town or even village to village!  Nowadays, cjarsons are a special dish served on village feast days, religious holidays like Christmas Eve and at weddings.

Jacqueline, Jacqui for short, is a foodie Brit who has been living in Verona, Italy with her Sicilian husband since 2003. She also works part-time as an online English teacher but dedicates most of her time to cooking and blogging. Her blog, the Pasta Project, focusses on Italian pasta and gnocchi. It has hundreds of recipes as well as info on the history and origin of Italian pasta types and the traditional dishes made with them. In the past, Jacqui worked as a journalist and columnist for the English language newspaper, The Malta Independent, in Malta where she lived for more than 20 years. Her passion for pasta is something that has developed in the 18 years she has been living in Italy!

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