How Pasta Got Its Name and a Place in Italian Culture

Young woman and older woman making pasta together.

“Pasta” is a term used to describe traditional Italian noodles, which have become a staple in kitchens and on dinner tables all over the world. The Italian word actually means “paste” and refers to the dough, made from ground durum wheat and water or eggs, which is cut into many varieties and shapes.

Contrary to popular belief, the Venetian merchant Marco Polo did not bring pasta to Italy from China in the 13th century. Not only was pasta already gaining popularity at that time, but also its roots go way farther.

Around the 4th century B.C., Etruscans, the inhabitants of the central western part of Italy, prepared a lasagna-type noodle made of spelt. And the first mention of an Etrusco-Roman noodle made from durum wheat that was called “lagane”—the root of the modern word “lasagna”—was in the 1st century A.D. However, both, the Etruscans and the Romans baked their noodles in an oven, rather than boiling them as we do today.

American historian Charles Perry, who has authored several articles on the origins of pasta, writes that the first clear Western reference to boiled noodles or boiled dough (“itriyah”) is in the Jerusalem Talmud of the 5th century.

Archaeologists believe that noodles were most likely first produced in central Asia thousands of years ago. According to some theories, they were brought to Italy by traders from Arabia. These merchants are said to have packed dried pasta for long journeys over the Silk Road to China and introduced it to Sicily in the 8th century during the Arab invasions. In fact, many Sicilian pasta recipes include Middle Eastern ingredients like raisins and cinnamon. Even the modern word “macaroni” comes from the Sicilian term for kneading dough with energy—a requirement for the laborious process of making pasta.

Eventually, durum wheat would become the main ingredient used to make pasta. Southern Italy’s climate made it ideal for growing this type of hard wheat. Durum also has a long shelf life due to its high gluten content. That, along with pasta’s affordability and the many ways it can be prepared have made the dish an important part of Italian culture.

Surprisingly, what many believe to be the perfect marriage—pasta with tomato sauce—took several hundred years to become part of the country’s cuisine. Thought to be poisonous when they were brought back to Europe in the 1500s, tomatoes were not used in pasta recipes until 1839.

Pasta is so popular that it’s estimated that Italians consume more than sixty pounds per person every year.