Durum wheat grows naturally in Italy.

©istockphoto/elianderic

Origin of Italian Pasta

­Incredibly, the emergence of Italian pasta occurred in total isolation from China. Before Marco Polo left for his China expedition in 1292, Italy had discovered the culinary delights of pasta centuries earlier. The Arab geographer Idrisi described the pasta he encountered in Sicily in 1154 as made from flour and formed into long strings [source: Needham and Wang]. By the Mi­ddle Ages, Sicily and Sardinia had developed pasta trades as well.

When tracing the origins of Italian pasta, historians look to a plant, rather than an individual. The cultivation of durum wheat offers more clues to how Italian pasta evolved into the country's trademark food. Today, most of the pasta on store shelves comes from durum wheat, which has high levels of gluten. That gluten adds malleability to the pasta dough, making it easier to work with. The Chinese climate isn't conducive to durum wheat production, whereas the cereal thrives in Italy's environment. Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations grew durum wheat, but written records indicate that they stopped short of converting the ground grains, or semolina, into pasta and settled for breads and gruel [source: Serventi, Sabban and Shugaar].

Yet some food historians argue that the Greeks had more cooking in the kitchen that paved the way for pasta. For instance, the ancient Greek word meaning "ribbon" is itrion, and the Arabic word for "noodle" is the similar-looking itrijab [source: Bober]. In addition, Greek mythology includes a tale about the god Vulcan pushing dough through a device that converts it into thin, edible threads.

But that etymological explanation doesn't completely account for the leap from bread to pasta in Italy. A majority of food historians credit the Arabs for bringing pasta, along with spinach, eggplant and sugar cane, to the Mediterranean basin [source: Bober]. By the ninth century, Arab groups had expanded into Sicily and southern Italy, likely bringing along noodle-making techniques learned from their Eastern neighbors. By the 12th century, Arabs had also taught Italians their methods for drying pasta, which they would have used for preserving the food while traveling [source: Capatti, Montari and O'Healy].

As pasta production traveled up the Italian boot, Naples became the center of durum wheat pasta manufacturing. Today, Italians gobble up between 66 and 77 pounds (30 and 35 kilograms) of pasta every year, more than anywhere else in the world -- including China [source: Dendy and Dobraszczyk].