It’s All About the Pasta

Apr 05

When Did Everything Change?

Some say it was the Vietnam War, when we stopped believing a single word our government said, including “and” and “the.” Maybe it was when we started calling love affairs “relationships,” thereby sanitizing the romance right out of our sex lives. Or was it the rise of political correctness, when suddenly absolutely anything you said about anyone became incredibly insulting to someone?

I agree with all of the above. But I have another explanation:

It was the day we started calling spaghetti “pasta.”

Growing up as an Italian-American, the only time I remember hearing the word “pasta” was in conjunction with “fagioli,” although we were more inclined to call that bean and macaroni dish “pasta fazool,” a Brooklyn-American version of Neapolitan dialect made famous by Dean Martin in the song “That’s Amore.”


It was love all right. We loved our macaroni, which was different from spaghetti, both of which came in many varieties: from angel hair to bucatini,  tubitini to ziti, ravioli to lasagna. In truth, we were very fussy about which pasta (although we didn’t call it that) went with which sauce (which we called “gravy”), and everyone and his uncle (and, especially, aunt) had their own, fiercely held opinions about this. But we called them by their names, so that it was linguini with clam sauce, or spaghetti and meatballs. Homemade meatballs! Does anyone even do that any more?

These days, it’s all different. And mostly for the better. You rarely encounter soggy, overcooked lasagna or baked ziti anymore, and you can get all kinds of stuffing for ravioli, not just the classic and one-time ubiquitous cheese. Now spinach is a given. Not to mention mushroom. Or duck. How about lobster! Crab!! Veal and truffle!! Almost anything you can think of. And so far, I haven’t met a ravioli I didn’t like.

It’s just that somehow I feel cheated.

The general American public, against which I have nothing, or very little, has co-opted my heritage. They talk about pasta as if they invented it! They no longer marvel at my family’s Sunday dinners. Although, to be fair, they are long gone.

There Were Meatballs Back Then.

My mother liked serving either rotini or fusilli, the difference being very subtle.  I, on the other hand, lust for plain old medium thick spaghetti. We used Ronzoni in my house because it had an Italian name, and #8 or #9 was the preferred size for meat sauce—which came with meatballs— although, of course, you had to use capellini for anchovy sauce, which you had to have on Christmas Eve.

We now use imported brands like DeCecco or Barilla, and have serious discussions, coming perilously close to arguments, with friends and family about which is best. I’m not sure, but they’re all better than Ronzoni, so some of this change, as I’ve said, is for the better.

But a small part of me (and many, although not all,  parts of me are small) is not okay with  this Brave New World of . . . Pasta.

Because I’m Italian (94% anyway as per 23 and Me) and they’re not. How dare they take my people’s favorite food and make it their own!

Sometimes I yearn for the days when non-Italians (AKA “Medicans”) spoke of making a spaghetti dinner and “We” felt superior to “Them,” because “They” had no idea how to make sauce, AKA “gravy.” Good god, some of  “Them” actually used ketchup! And rinsed the spaghetti after cooking (don’t do it), or served it without mixing the sauce all through it, or ate it with bread and butter — and milk! Grotesqueries, all.

But not any more. Now people know about all kinds of fancy pasta. Vodka sauce has become pedestrian. Rachel Ray makes saffron with lentils and tagliatelle. Personally, I never heard of saffron until I traveled to Spain, although lentil soup was a staple, especially when there was a ham bone left over from last night’s meal.

“If I want bacon, I’ll go to the diner.”

The above quote is from my dear departed uncle, speaking of spaghetti carbonara, which was new to him but is now commonplace. And as for the diner, don’t be surprised to see fettucine primavera on the menu. Fancy restaurants? Fuhgeddaboutit. Malfatti (roast suckling pig and fresh arugula), anyone? Burrata ravioli with truffle oil? Tagliolini with mussels and peas?

You name it, some ristorante has it. Everyone has it. Harrumph.

My only consolation is that not everyone, practically no one, in fact, has experienced the joy of  home-made ravioli. Made. At. Home. My job was to cut out each piece using a kitchen glass, then prick the edges with a fork. I bet I could still do it if I had to. And I used to make a mean sauce, but why?

The thing is, I don’t have to. I can get perfectly good tomato sauce in a jar these days, plus any kind of pasta I can think of — and some I’ve never heard of—and not just in Italian stores (not many of those left) but in almost any supermarket. Things change. It’s called progress (as opposed to Progresso, another trip down meatball lane). And sometimes it’s even a good thing.

But I ask you this:  If  Yankee Doodle went to town a-riding on a pony, and stuck a feather in his hat . . . would he call it “Pasta?”

I think not.




Yes! Fans of I Can’t Believe I’m Not Bitter, this is a rerun from last year. But pasta springs eternal, so I thought that you (and new readers) would enjoy it. I’ve even included some comments from the previous post.


  1. This article was absolutely wonderful to this fellow Italian-American. Oh how I miss the macaroni in the homemade sauce made with meatballs and sausage which, in our household, were called “gravy meat”. When my mother was not looking, I would tear off a chunk of Italian bread, push over the lid to the pot in which the sauce was cooking, dunk the bread and try to sneak away unnoticed – that never did work so I got the flat end of the wooden spoon on my behind (and a knowing smile). But I still got to enjoy that “gravy” soaked piece of Italian bread.

    Of course, nowadays, unless I wanted to spend eight hours a day, every day for one year exercising, I could not even think of eating that food anymore :-(.

    Thanks for the memories and the comments and the sense of humor.

  2. Alex /

    Most excellent! I felt like I just relived not only a part of your growing up years, but several experiences of my own. In fact, I am reminded of a very special Christmas meal in the home of an Italian family. A high school friend had invited me over for Christmas Day dinner with her family. And I do mean family because aunts and uncles were definitely there, along with parents and grandparents and who knows who else?

    The men talked it up in the living room and the women in the kitchen. Don’t judge, that’s just how it was back then.) There was food from morning untill evening, ad all of it delicious. I suspect that if I never ate again I would be fine right now, over 40 years later.

    But I remember the names that you mentioned being called out at that dinner table. I till remember the attention to detail; the affection and love shared throughout the courses…the many, many courses. And I remember the joy I felt at the end of the day of having gathered with a such wonderful group of people.

    I’m still friends with the lovely lady who invited me over. I suspect a good Italian meal had something to do with that too, and I suspect that will never change, no matter what they call the spaghetti.

  3. Lisleman /

    My father’s side is Italian but not my mother side of the family. We enjoyed Italian dishes at home. I guess the families with Italian mothers probably enjoyed more variety of Italian food.
    I recall how excitingly tasty the toasted ravioli appetizer was at some St. Louis restaurant years ago. I just checked and wikipedia says toasted ravioli can be traced to St. Louis.
    Things change especially food.

  4. Gary /

    Ah yes…I remember helping Mom with making Ravioli by pressing the ends together with a fork…and stealing the meatballs after she fried them and put them on a plate…I can still taste them !!

  5. Jennifer /

    Fun post Pat! My mother is a paesana so I got a heavy dose of Italian fare (including, of course, “pasta”) while growing up. However, my Italian Italian friends (v. Italian American friends) are horrified/puzzled by what we eat and call Italian food in America. Most dishes seem to have only a passing resemblance to the original. Quite an eye opener. I’m sure you could blog quite wittlly (is that a word) about pizza next.

  6. Ruth /

    Marvelously funny post. I did hijack pasta as my own but recently did genetic testing and I am in fact part Italian!

  7. Diana Giuseppone /

    Call it anything but don’t call me late of dinner. I’ll show up and bring my own ravioli glass. I do have one!

  8. Louis Venezia /

    AAHHH, the gravy, the pot on the stove!
    I grew up with the same terms that you grew up with. Gravy meat, that sausage and meatballs that were in the pot – OMG!

    I appreciate your inclusion of the image from the Disney film “The Lady and the Tramp”. As a kid, I liked that movie (it wasn’t called a ‘film’ then) for two reasons: first the dog serenade which I mimicked to the annoyance of others in my family and the Italian chef who served the spaghetti dinner.

    Thanks for the Italian trip down memory lane!

  9. Clare Rakshys /

    Loved that. I was one of the lucky Medicans growing up. I had an Italian friend and got invited to some great Italian multi-course Holiday meals cooked by her Mom, Grandmother and Aunt. Lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs among them. I was in food Heaven.

  10. Thanks, Clare. I’m afraid those days are over, but we do have our memories!

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