When you think of pasta you think of Italian food, and a favorite pasta dish probably comes to mind. The average American eats about twenty pounds of pasta a year, and the average Italian eats over sixty pounds—that’s a lot of pasta! Pasta is a staple that can take on many forms, be paired with many ingredients, and can feature a myriad of delicious sauces. We will delve into the history of pasta, to give you a better understanding of how some of your favorite pasta creations have come to be.
Early Origins of Pasta
While pasta in America has become a staple, the exact origins are unknown. By the 12th century there were references to pasta throughout Roman works, but many think that pasta’s roots could go back as far as the third century B.C. Many cultures have some variation of a pasta-like dough, but the earliest variations were probably baked not boiled. While the earliest pastas seemed to be reserved for the wealthy upper class, by the 1300s pasta was known as a hearty, sustaining food that was popular with the working class. Because it had a long shelf life, pasta was easily transported and its popularity spread. Interestingly, the earliest pastas were usually paired with sweet rather than savory ingredients.
Pasta Meets Tomatoes
Think of an iconic pasta dish and you probably will call to mind something rich with tomatoes. Tomato sauce and pasta seem to go hand in hand, but this wasn’t always the case. Tomatoes are a part of the nightshade family (and their leaves are not edible) and throughout Europe people were wary of them. Rumors of them being poisonous kept the tomato from being incorporated into dishes, and they were classified with other poisonous plants and avoided. It wasn’t until 1839 that the first recipe pairing pasta and tomatoes was documented, but once people tried it there was no turning back!
One iconic way that pasta and tomatoes are enjoyed is in a piece of classic, delicious lasagna. Surprisingly, the roots of lasagna might be Greek, not Italian. Lasagna can be traced back to the Greek word “laganon” which is an early form of pasta. While it wasn’t the lasagna of today, this early dish was made by layering ingredients, including a flat dough and raisins, giving rise to the current form. In the 1400s
pasta was referred to as “lasagna” and those who made it were the “lasagnare”. Lasagna as we know it today seems to have come on the scene in the Middle Ages in Naples, Italy and was only served on special occasions. At Maggio’s we keep the tradition alive with our homemade lasagna: fresh pasta, ground beef, ricotta, mozzarella cheese, and marinara sauce baked into a delicious dish.
While the combination of tomatoes and pasta is undeniably delicious, the creamy sauce of a classic fettuccine alfredo is another great way to enjoy pasta. This dish is more common in America than in Italy, and traces its roots back to a pregnant wife and her husband, Alfredo di Lelio, who wanted to cook her a dish that wouldn’t upset her sensitive stomach. He tossed fresh pasta with butter and Parmesan and not only was his wife happy, but he added it to his menu in Rome. Two American silent film actors tried the dish and were smitten; after telling all their friends about “Alfredo’s fettuccine” they started the trend in America. While fettuccine alfredo is commonplace in America, ask for it in Italy and no one will know what you’re talking about! You will need to ask for fettuccine al burro (pasta with butter), or pasta in bianco (white pasta) to get what you are looking for! At Maggio’s we serve our creamy fettuccine alfredo sauce with mushrooms, and your choice of chicken or shrimp for a decadent dish.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
What feels more classically Italian than a heaping dish of spaghetti and meatballs? Funnily enough, this dish isn’t popular in Italy, although meatballs and pasta are both popular separately, but was created by Italian immigrants who came to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pasta, meatballs, and tomato sauce were all independently popular, but started to be eaten together and a new dish was born. For most of us, when we think of Italian food we think of spaghetti and meatballs, and whether this dish is classically Italian or not, it is here to stay! Maggio’s not only has a classic spaghetti and meatballs, but we also have a combination dish that has mushrooms, pepperoni, meatballs, and Italian sausage in marinara sauce—you will have to try it! We also feature a baked spaghetti that has five delicious cheeses!
Do you love spaghetti, cheese, and bacon? If you haven’t tried spaghetti carbonara, you are in for a treat. The name derives from carbonaro, the Italian word for charcoal burner, so some people think this was a classic hearty meal eaten by Italian charcoal workers. It also could just be so named because the abundant use of fresh black pepper resembled charcoal on the dish! The dish has also been referred to as coal miner’s spaghetti. Whatever the case, combining crispy bacon, onions, with a rich creamy sauce (Maggio’s adds in ham too!) creates a decadent dish that bursts with flavor!
If you love pasta but tomato sauce isn’t your jam, have you tried pesto pasta? Pestare, the root word of pesto, means to crush or pound, and speaks to how pesto sauce was originally prepared with a mortar and pestle. The classic ingredients of Pesto, originating from Genoa in northern Italy, are basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and Fiore Sardo, a sheep’s milk cheese. The climate of northern Italy is perfect for growing basil, which may have given rise to finding new ways to use this fragrant herb. At Maggio’s we add in fresh tomatoes to our flavorful pesto sauce for an amazing pasta dish!
Ziti al forno, or oven baked ziti, dates back to the Middle Ages when pastas were baked, not boiled. A baked pasta dish could be a complete meal, combining the pasta, meat, cheese, and various vegetables into something hearty and filling. Ziti are pasta tubes that were traditionally served at weddings, holidays, and family celebrations. They were traditionally up to 18 inches long and would be broken into shorter pieces by hand, but the ziti of today come precut. At Maggio’s, we bake our ziti with ricotta and a rich blend of cheeses for a satisfying plate of deliciousness.
Exploring the roots of commonly enjoyed pasta dishes is fun, but you know what is better? Getting to enjoy them! If you are looking for a restaurant in Alexandria to enjoy your Italian (or not so Italian, as the case may be) pasta favorites, Maggio’s has them all! Stop in today to try our lasagna, a classic plate of spaghetti and meatballs, or a vibrant pesto pasta!