Of course the Italians also make fresh noodles, formed from softer
varieties of wheat, sometimes with a little harder wheat mixed in,
often with egg, and sometimes even a little milk. These are cut into
strands, or made into packets around a filling, and cooked fresh.
The origin of pasta and noodles in Italy is obscure, but they most certainly weren't brought back from China by Marco Polo. Pasta was well known in Italy before he left on his voyage. For details on this history, see our Pasta & Noodles overview page.
The making of true pasta requires a particular hard, high protein (but low gluten) wheat: Triticum durum alt Triticum turgidum var. durum. It is this hard wheat that is responsible for the unique color, drying properties, cooking properties, taste and texture of true pasta - and the ability to be rolled and extruded into the myriad simple and complex shapes we are accustomed to.
It is true that in Central Europe, pasta-like shapes are often made from bread wheat flour, or even "all purpose" wheat flour. These "pasta" shapes differ substantially in texture, flavor and ability to hold shape from durum wheat pasta.
Italy is unable to grow enough durum wheat to meet its demand for quality pasta. Formerly much was imported from Russia and Ukraine, but Communist central planning destroyed the agriculture of the region, so Italy shifted its trade to North America, particularly Canada.
The Middle East produces about as much durum wheat as Europe and North America combined, but nearly all is used to make bulgur (parboiled wheat) and flat breads (durum can't make light European style breads).Fresh, Dried and Colored Pasta
Neither dried nor fresh pasta is superior to the other, nor are they quite interchangeable. They are different and used differently, and with different saucing. Dried is firm and chewy, fresh is tender and delicate. Fresh has the additional role of being used for more kinds of stuffed pasta than dried can be.
Dried Pasta: Southern Italy is the home of dried pasta, having had the right humidity and reliable breezes to allow outdoor air drying, before modern indoor drying became practical. Fresh pasta is made in the south, but much less often than in the north.
Italian dried pasta is made out of durum wheat semolina (coarse flour) and water. By Italian law no other wheat may be used. Some vitamins may be mixed in for "enriched" pasta.
There are two styles of dried pasta: that extruded through modern teflon dies and that extruded through traditional bronze dies. Pasta made with bronze dies has a rougher texture and a whiter appearance than that made with teflon dies. Teflon die pasta is very smooth and distinctly yellow in color.
Pasta chefs prefer bronze die pasta because it cooks more evenly and the rough surface grips sauces better. Factory managers prefer the teflon dies, because the extrusion process is much faster and stresses the machinery less. Most retailers also prefer the teflon die product because its shiny surface is more attractive at point of sale.
Fresh Pasta: Northern Italy uses more fresh pasta than Southern Italy, but it does not dominate even there. It is a hassle to make, so it's usually reserved for special dishes and special occasions.
Fresh pasta is usually made from softer wheats, though some durum semolina can be mixed in, and some is made with just durum, but that takes strength to work with.
In the south, some fresh pasta is made with just flour and water, but in the north it is almost always made with flour, eggs and salt. If it is to be used for stuffing, as in ravioli, a little milk is sometimes added.
Colored Pasta should be made only with natural colors. "Tricolor" uses tomato and spinach for color. Where more colors are desired tomato, spinach, turmeric, red beet, basil, carrot and squid ink are used in powdered form at about a 1.5%. except tomato which may be around 3%. The colorant does flavor the pasta but not strongly. Use a simple butter or oil dressing on these to preserve color and flavor.Italian Pasta Shapes
Until near the beginning of the 20th century, dried pasta, or macharoni, meant vermicelli and other spaghetti-like forms, and perhaps a few cut flat forms like fettuchine. The reason for this parsity of shapes was that only long thin pasta could be hung out to dry in the open air. Other factors were the difficulty of making dies that would produce shapes (drilling round holes was easy) and limitations of the presses used to extrude pasta through the dies.
Drying tunnels replacing the open air racks made shapes more feasible, as they could be dried on screens as well as hanging on racks. Mechanization of the presses and advances in cutting shaped dies also contributed greatly to the explosion of pasta shapes.
Choosing Shapes: There are several factors in choosing an appropriate shape:
Note on sizes: For string pastas like linguini and fettuchini there is some variation in size among manufacturers, particularly for lengths but also diameters and thickness - but they're all usually pretty close. There is a lot of size variation with the shorter shapes.
Where size goes really bananas is with the "artisan pastas", easily identifiable by their whitish "bronze die" color and high prices. Artisan pastas often use the standard names and shapes but make them HUGE.
Numbers: The numbers given here are CloveGarden numbers and have no relation to Italian die numbers, which vary with manufacturer.Links