Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon
Sign up for our Email Newsletter
Authentic Southern Italian Cuisine
deco-left deco-right

Did Marco Polo Bring Pasta to Italy?

March 9, 2013 Carlino's Restaurant no comments

“Marco Polo described the noodles he ate in the court of Kubla Khan as vermicelli”

When Marco Polo, the great Venetian explorer, traveled to Beijing in the 13th century, he supposedly brought what would become one of Italy’s most famous foods home with him: pasta. Without the Chinese contribution, the legend goes, Italians might not have their dazzling array of pastas from lasagna to linguini.

Archaeologists know for certain that noodles of some sort were first found in China. The world’s oldest noodle dish contained strands of ground, dried millet in spaghetti-like strands coiled in an earthenware bowl about 4,000 years ago in a region near present-day Beijing. Noodles older than the Coliseum are a strong argument that Chinese chefs were getting creative with pasta centuries before the rest of the world knew the joys of a plate of well-sauced spaghetti. By the time Marco Polo got there, Chinese cuisine had refined noodle dishes to a high art. He almost certainly enjoyed them while he was there.

However, the millet and buckwheat noodles in Chinese dishes aren’t much like Italian semolina pasta, and Italy’s archaeological sites boast their own tradition of pasta-making. As early as 400 years before Julius Caesar transformed Rome from a republic to an empire, people in the region were making a wheat paste, forming it into sheets or strands and boiling it. Etruscan frescoes depict what appears to be pasta-making in action. The rolling pin and cutting wheel in the painting are early versions of tools still familiar to many Italian chefs today. Marco Polo’s trip was still more than 1,600 years away when that scene was painted.

Another source for Italian pasta’s native roots is the most famous Roman writing on cooking, the Apicius cookbook. By the time the Roman guide to feasting was written sometime around the early fourth century, dishes made with sheets of finely ground wheat dough were already in it. Laganum, one of the most popular, is a clear forerunner of modern Italian lasagna, although it had to wait centuries to receive its tangy tomato layers. Cicero was said to be a fan of laganum and ate it often.

Possibly the best proof that Marco Polo was already familiar with pasta is that he already had a name for it when he came back and wrote about his travels. He described the noodles he ate in the court of Kubla Khan as vermicelli, a term he didn’t describe for his readers because he assumed they knew exactly what he described. Fortunately for historians, writing had come into fashion not only for explorers, but for common citizens. A soldier from Genoa named Ponzio Baestone left a will in which he mentioned macaroni – 16 years before Marco Polo returned from China.

Chinese dishes have their own tradition, but it’s clear that Italian pasta has home-grown roots. From the earliest Roman laganum to today’s glorious spaghetti, linguini and ziti, pasta is an Italian original. We can thank Marco Polo for plenty of other wonders, but he didn’t bring pasta to Italy because it was already there.

Comments are closed, sorry.

  • rss
  • facebook
  • email