Dried pasta was familiar in the Mediterranean area in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and was also mentioned in Genovese documents. The first traces of dry pasta in Europe came from Sicily, where documents from the twelfth century tell of something like a factory for dry pasta, localized in the Palermo area. From this site, the pasta (called itrjia) was then exported to other regions of southern Italy.
Genovese sailors were among the most active traders within the Mediterranean. It is not surprising that in the thirteenth century, Genoa became a trader, and then fabricator, of dry pasta, spreading it to many other countries — leading to this pasta being called Genovese.
The oldest macaroni recipes found are from Sicily. They include macaroni with eggplant (eggplant was introduced by the Arabs to Sicily around the year 1000 from India) and macaroni with sardines. Both of these delicious dishes are still present in Sicilian cooking.
Other establishments appeared through southern Italy, and the pasta called spaghetti today (meaning “strings”) or vermicelli (meaning “little worms”), for its threadlike shape, was called tria at that time. And, by then, dried pasta from Italy was known in Provence and in England. Tube-shaped short pasta would be named macaroni, supposedly from the Latin word maccare, meaning “to mash.”
In those times, fresh and stuffed pasta, dressed with cheeses, spices, or sweets, was an aristocratic type of food, while dry pasta was considered a popular food. Macaroni, though well known, was not an important food in the diet of Italians outside the places where it was produced.
The turning point came in Naples in the 1600s. Imports of meat and fresh produce became difficult and expensive due to an economic crisis. Flour was available instead, and pasta had become more affordable especially after the invention of the mechanical press. Dry pasta quickly became the people’s food. Neapolitans even came to be called mangiamaccheroni (macaroni eaters).
Durum wheat semolina was produced in large quantities in southern Italy. Macaroni is a filling food for poor people, and pasta with cheese contains good nourishment. As a result, the poor of southern Italy did not suffer pellagra and famine as much as the northerners, whose only staple was maize.
In 1785, Naples had 280 pasta shops. In the 1800s, pasta was sold by street vendors, who cooked it over a charcoal fire, and it was eaten on the spot with bare hands. Pasta was sold with no dressing, or merely with a bit of grated sheep cheese until the early 1800s, when the first tomato sauces appeared.
Southern Italy had hundreds of artisan pasta makers, but it was in 1824 in northern Italy, close to Genova, that the first industrial pasta factory was established by the Agnese family. A few years later, the Buitoni family founded another pasta factory.
After the Italian unification in 1862, pasta spread all over the country and traveled with Italian immigrants to the United States. Before long, pasta was eaten all around the world, and the rest “is history”!