There are over 800 different named pasta shapes. Some of these are just regional names for pretty much the same thing though. Some of their names translate as ‘small bulls’, ‘little muffs’, ‘scruffy hats’, ‘pot bellied’, ‘little worms’, ‘bridegrooms’ or ‘little moustaches’.
That Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy from China is a plain fabrication. Nobody knows who first made it. The Ancient Romans, Greeks and Etruscans were enjoying pasta long before Marco came along, and the Arabs probably invented the kind of dried pastas we are used to today. They are thought to have introduced it to Sicily in the 12th century.
But pasta was not commonly found on Italian dining tables until the second half of the 19th century. Its proliferation then seems to be due to a combination of factors – Neapolitan influence carried north by Garibaldi’s returning army, new strains of wheat becoming available, and the industrial revolution which mechanised production. And it was in America that the idea of pasta as a main course developed. Italian immigrants generated the demand in the US which fuelled the mechanisation back home in Italy.
The word ‘noodle’, sometimes used to refer to pasta, comes from the Latin nodellus (‘little knot’), describing the tangles of pasta on the plate.
Contrary to what some say, pasta cooked al dente is better for you than well-cooked pasta. If it’s slightly tough you chew, which breaks the pasta down and mixes it with digestive enzymes in your saliva.
My favourite brand for dry pasta, fairly commonly available, is De Cecco. Look out for the blue bags and boxes. Their pasta is made using bronze die-cuts, which have irregular surfaces. The defects in the bronze make loads of minuscule cuts in the pasta, leaving the surface rough and able to absorb sauces better than that left smooth and shiny by nylon moulds. De Cecco also dries their pasta at low temperatures which leaves the pasta better able to retain its shape and strength during cooking.