We enjoy many foods whose Italian names tell us something of their shape, mode of preparation, or origin: espresso (literally “pressed out”), cannelloni (“big pipes”), ravioli (“little turnips”), spaghetti (“little strings”), tutti-frutti (“every fruit”), vermicelli (“little worms”), lasagna (“baking pot”), parmesan (“from Parma”), minestrone (“dished out”), and pasta (“dough paste”).
All these foods conjure up images of Italy, and all derive from that country except perhaps the most obvious one, pasta (including vermicelli and spaghetti), which was first prepared in China at least three thousand years ago, from rice and bean flour. Tradition has it that the Polo brothers, Niccolo and Maffeo, and Niccolo’s son, Marco, returned from China around the end of the thirteenth century with recipes for the preparation of Chinese noodles.
It is now been documented that the consumption of pasta in the form of spaghetti-like noodles and turnip-shaped ravioli was firmly established in Italy by 1353, the year Boccaccio’s Decameron was published. That book of one hundred fanciful tales, supposedly told by a group of Florentines to while away ten days during a plague (hence the Italian name Decamerone, meaning “ten days”), not only mentions the two dishes but suggests a sauce and cheese topping: “In a region called Bengodi, where they tie the vines with sausage, there is a mountain made of grated parmesan cheese on which men work all day making spaghetti and ravioli, eating them in capon’s sauce.”
For hundreds of years, all forms of pasta were laboriously rolled and cut by hand, a consideration that kept the dish from becoming the commonplace it is today. Spaghetti pasta was first produced on a large scale in Naples in 1800, with the aid of wooden screw presses, and the long strings were hung out to dry in the sun. The dough was kneaded by hand until 1830, when a mechanical kneading trough was invented and widely adopted throughout Italy.
Bottled spaghetti and canned ravioli originated in America, the creation of an Italian-born, New York–based chef, Hector Boiardi. He believed Americans were not as familiar with Italian food as they should be and decided to do something about it. A chef at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel in the 1920s, Boiardi began bottling his famous meals a decade later under a phoneticised spelling of his surname, Boy-ar-dee. His convenient pasta dinners caught the attention of John Hartford, an executive of the A & P food chain, and soon chef Boiardi’s foods were appearing on grocery store shelves across the United States.
Though much can be said in praise of today’s fresh, gourmet pastas, served primavera, al pesto, and alla carbonara, Boy-ardee’s tomato sauce dishes, bottled, canned, and spelled for the masses, created something of a culinary revolution in the 1940s; they introduced millions of non-Italian Americans to their first taste of Italian cuisine.