EVERYONE KNOWS that Italy is a troubled country, a place where governments succeed one another with startling rapidity: where a million or so young people are having trouble finding work, and progress by police against kidnappers and terrorists alike is slow going. But let those who love Italy dearly and worry about its future rest assured. For in the Italian kitchen at least, a basic stability remains. As mealtime draws near one can be sure that the Sardinian fisherman, the Roman priest, the Emilian farmer, the Sicilian peasant, the Milanese businessman and the Venetian nobleman are all hungering for pastasciutta and wondering in what form, and with what kind of sauce, it will be served to them that day.
Millions of housewifes throughout the country are hovering over pots of boiling water and getting ready to buttar giu' la pasta (throw in the pasta) at the sound of the garage door, a key in the lock or that familiar step on the stair. The sugo or sauce, be it tomato, meat, fish or dairy, is already quietly simmering on the stove. The deep-dish piatti-fondi are stacked waiting on the sidebar, the parmesan or pecorino cheese has been grated, and once again a centuries-old ritual is about to take place.
Since pasta plays a starring role in the Italian cuisine, it is not surprising that most visitors to Italy want to sample it and quick. To make things easier for travelers from abroad, the menu of many restaurants include a misto di pasta that enables the novice to try three or four varieties at once.
But the fact is that today, as yesterday, pasta still plays an enormous part in the lives of most Italians particularly those of the male gender. This was demonstrated not so long ago by the response of a Roman cabbie to an American reporter curious about what effect the current political and economic confusion was likely to have on the average Italian.Nulla (none) came the response, "as long as we Italians have our three basics, soccer, sex and above all a plate of spaghetti."
The cabbie's remark says a lot for tradition, but it is above all a testament to the undying appeal of those slender, chubby, straight or round, short or long, pieces of dough that over the centuries have brought so much gastronomic happiness to so many. For pasta, or some form of it, appears to have existed throughout much of Italian history. The first written records of it date back to pre-Marco Polo days in 1279 when a Genoa notary named Ugolino Scarpa noted that the estate of a deceased soldier, Ponzio Bastone, included a "basketful of marcaroni."
By the 15th century, pasta had been transformed from a purely homemade product to one produced commercially for sale. By the 18th century it had become a staple of the Italian diet, particularly in Naples where it was dried and eaten -- with the fingers, mind you -- in the streets. Close to the end of the 19th century industrial production began. And despite a short-lived effort by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to stamp out the pasta-habit on the grounds that it created "flacid bodies" and "lazy brains," pasta today is still an essential part of the Italian diet, gracing the tables of both rich and poor. Thus, while millions of Americans are counting their calories -- huffing along jogging courses and doing daily calisthenics to both better their health and reduce their waistlines -- Italians continue to gobble up pasta carbohydrates at a rate -- about 60 pounds a year -- that shows few signs of slowing down.
"If I don't eat pasta, for me it is as if I haven't eaten," says Giacomo, a 32-year-old Roman waiter whose pasta predilections are betrayed by a premature paunch. Mario, a barman in a cafe near the Trevi fountain gets a glazed look in his eyes when pasta is mentioned, but recently pulled himself together long enough to give Carla, a 25-year-old traffic policewoman, a recipe for spaghetti con aglio olio e peperoncino (garlic, oil and chili pepper) to try out on her new hairdresser husband. Elio, a telex operator, says his diet-conscious wife is getting grumpy but that he has warned her that failure to provide him with pasta at the noon meal could be grounds for divorce. And the owners of several downtown Roman restaurants agree that 80 percent of their clients eat pasta regularly, except perhaps in the sultry summer months. For real addicts, however, the summer heat presents no obstacle. One simply switches over to cold pasta dishes like spaghetti alla checca which is served with fresh uncooked tomatoes, garlic and fresh basil.
Once considered a staple of only the Italian poor -- although Thomas Jefferson liked it enough to order a pasta machine from Naples in 1789 -- pasta is now a must for most blue and white collar families alike. It has also become an in thing to serve at fancy upperclass dinner parties, where it is considered particularly chic if the pasta served is homemade, or fatta in casa. Actually, homemade or even store-bought fresh pasta is a must only for stuffed pasta like ravioli, cannelloni or tortellini. But with good kitchen help gradually becoming a rarity, to serve one's guests homemade pasta is considered a sign of luxury or, at the very least, of unstinted hospitality and devotion.
During the winter months the women customers at a small but classy massage parlor off the Via Veneto dedicate much of their conversation to the pasta they ate the night before or to pasta recipes for their frequent dinner parties. Last year creative bounds seemed to have no limits when one of the women came up with a recipe for a sauce made with bacon, marscapone (an extra-heavy, slightly curdled cream) and a type of red chicory called radicchio rosso that is native to the northern Treviso area. As the recipe was explained, the other women -- most of whom were undergoing treatments for celulitis or plain old excess fat -- moaned and began taking notes. The recipe made the rounds of Rome and was an unqualified success.
The simple ingredients that go into pasta -- a flour called semolina ground from hard, or durum, wheat mixed with water and sometimes egg, or with spinach for the green variety -- give little clue as to the stuff's ageless appeal. Its fans cite its nutritional value -- high percentages of Vitamin B-1 or thiamin, B-2 (riboflavin), niacin and iron. And many Italians insist that one of pasta's major qualities is the variety of shapes and sizes that make it seem to be many dishes rather than one. In fact, although varieties like spaghetti, linguine, ravioli and lasagne have now become household words in the United States, the pasta types known to the average American come nowhere close to telling the entire story.
Actually, no one knows just how many different types of pasta there are, a precise count being hindered not only by the multiple varieties of small pastina used in soups, but by the fact that the names of similar pasta types often vary from region to region. Thus in Emilia-Romagna in the north, the fettuccine eaten in Rome is known as tagliatelle. Linguini is called trenette in Liguria, and stragulapreti (priest-stranglers) are unknown outside of Naples. Short pasta, generally hollow and therefore preferred for heavier sauces, also exists in an apparently unlimited number of forms. The most common are the ridged, tubular rigatoni and the smoother-surfaced thinner penne. Both of these come in a variety of widths, as do the countless other short pastas generically known as macaroni.
But the real secret of pasta's appeal, from both the point of view of tastebuds and pocketbook, is its amazing versatility. In effect, it constitutes a neutral base which can be cooked quickly and combined with an almost unlimited variety of condiments and sauces. The list of foods with which pasta can be and is served is almost unlimited.
In other words, pasta lends itself to the paychecks and pantries of Italians from every region and every walk of life. The southern contadino or the Emilian or Ligurian truck farmer can get a hearty, low-cost meal by serving pasta with a simple tomato sauce or other garden produce. The fisherman can make a quick but nourishing meal by combining the pasta of his choice with the leftovers from the day's catch. And the herdsman can garnish his pasta with butter, cream and cheese, with meatsauce, or with prosciutto. City-bred Italians can do all this or more. As for the Roman prince, he can both satisfy his refined tastes and impress his friends by serving pasta with delicacies like smoked salmon and caviar, with vodka, cognac and yes, even champagne.
In America today the trend is one of time-saving devices, like food processors, crock pots, broilers and microwave ovens -- not to mention TV dinners and frozen foods. In Italy, where meals are still the highlight of the day, all of these have had trouble catching on. Statistics show that most families still eat a multi-course meal, both at lunch and at dinner. Not surprisingly, then, at least half of Italy's housewives are estimated to have conserved the fine art of making pasta from scratch -- even if it is no longer something most of them do on a regular basis. Even for the very expert, pasta-making involves a couple of hours of kneading, rolling, drying and cutting. This means two things. First, that an Italian household without the hand-cranked pasta machine that sells in most housewares stores for between $15 and $25 is hard to find. (More sophisticated electric models are still too high-priced for most people to be able to afford.) And second, that aside from holidays and other special occasions, most housewives use dried, or fresh, store-bought pasta. Family cupboards are always well-stocked with several types of pasta. And a housewife without canned pelati tomatoes, tomato paste, onion, garlic, parsley, basil, olive oil -- the rudimentary makings of a basic sauce or sugo -- and parmesan cheese, simply has no right to call herself such.