The Brave New World of . . . Pasta

Aug 29

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.

Lady_5I 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 Pasta_Typescame in many varieties: from angel hair to bucatini,  tubitini to ziti, ravioli to lasagna. In truth, we 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, his 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.

And 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, 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.

And yet.

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.

I’m Italian. 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, which we called “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! Grotequeries, all.

But not any more.

pasta_dishNow people know about all kinds of fancy pasta. Vodka sauce has become pedestrian. Rachel Ray makes saffron with lentils and tagilatelle. Personally, I never heard of saffron until I travelled to Spain, although lentil soup was a staple, especially when there was a ham bone left over from last night’s meal.

Spaghetti carbonara, about which not that long ago my uncle said: “If I want bacon, I’ll go to the diner,” is now commonplace. And as for the diner, don’t be surprised to see fettucine primavera on the menu. Fancy restaurants? Fugeddaboutit. Malfatti (roast suckling pig and fresh arugula), anyone? Burrate 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?

Yankee_Doodle_BookThe 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 riding on a pony and stuck a feather in his hat . . . would he call it “Pasta?”

I think not.


This post was originally run as Invasion of the Pasta People. I felt that it was worth repeating. And it’s my blog.


  1. Alexander Simmons /

    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.

    • Oh, Alex, I fear the days of those long, delicious Italian meals are over — for most of us. Families are no longer in one place, and we found out about cholesterol! But it was lovely while it lasted.
      BTW: That’s why my nieces and nephews (led by Benny) call me Auntie Pasta. I was in charge of making the antipasto, which is basically arranging appetizers and, unlike other chores i was given, I loved doing this. I guess we changed Pasto (which means meal) to Pasta because it sounded more feminine, but whatever, I like it.

  2. 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.

    • Italian mother? You ate well, I’m sure. Toasted ravioli? Never encountered that, but sounds interesting. As you say, food changes. Actually, I think that American food in general has gotten better and not just the “pasta.”

  3. 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 !!

  4. Lou Venezia /

    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.

  5. Yes! Yes! The scooping of the sauce (I mean gravy!)with the fresh Italian bread (from the Italian Bread Store, not any old supermarket), one of the best culinary events of my young life — and which beats a lot of so-called gourmet dishes I’ve had since in endless expensive restaurants.
    Some things WERE better back then.

  6. 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.

    • Spaghetti and meatballs: virtually unknown in Italy. Also, Italians think we overuse garlic. (We do.)
      Pizza! You’re right, that’s a whole other story — or blog post. I’m chewing on that.

  7. Ruth Lapin /

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

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