History : Jul-Aug 2016
FOOD FOR THE COMMON MAN THREE NEAPOLITAN beggars, or laz- zaroni, eating a dish of macaroni with their hands in the middle of a street. The detail is from the oil painting “Macaroni Eaters” by Domenico Gar- giulo, a 17th-century native of the city where cheap wheat and rising meat prices were turning pasta into an affordable staple. pasta dishes—macaroni, ravioli, gnoc- chi, vermicelli—crop up with increasing frequency across the Italian Peninsula. Pasta’s popularity is mentioned by the 14th-century writer Boccaccio. In his col- lection of earthy tales, The Decameron, h e recounts a mouthwatering fantasy con- cerning a mountain of Parmesan cheese down which pasta chefs roll macaroni and ravioli to gluttons waiting below. In the 1390s Franco Sacchetti, an- other poet and writ- er of tales, also tells how two friends meet up to eat macaroni. They both eat from the same dish, as was the custom of the time, but one of them has more of an appetite than the other: “Noddo started to pile the macaroni to- gether, roll it up and swallow it down. He had sent six mouthfuls down the hatch while Giovanni’s first one was still on the fork. He did not dare put it in his mouth as the food was steaming.” What did the pasta that Noddo bolts down with such relish taste like? Throughout the Middle Ages, until the start of the 16th century, pasta dishes were markedly different from those eaten today. Not only was pasta cooked for lon- ger—there was none of the modern-day preference for pasta al dente—it was also mixed with ingredients that would seem surprising now, often combining sweet, savory, and spicy flavors. Pasta was considered a dish for the wealthy, taking pride of place in aristo- cratic banquets during the Renaissance. For example, Bartolomeo Scappi, a papal chef in the middle of the 16th century, created a third course for a banquet con- sisting of boiled chicken accompanied with ravioli filled with a paste made of boiled pork belly, cow udders, roast pork, Parmesan cheese, fresh cheese, sugar, herbs, spices, and raisins. Scappi’s recipe for maccheroni alla ro- manesca was similarly elaborate. Flour and breadcrumb dough was mixed with goat’s milk and egg yolk and flattened AKG/ALBUM DEA/ALBUM MACARONI MUNCHER 17TH-CENTURY PLATE FROM SOUTHERN ITALY Pasta was cooked for longer, with none of the modern-day preference for pasta al dente. DEA/ALBUM DAILY LIFE PASTA VENDORS in 1880s Naples sell vermicelli in industrial quantities in this 19th-century hand-colored woodcut.