Origin: The Relationship of Pasta and the Genesis of Traditional Italian Meal Structure



Traditional Italian meal structure creates a featured dish for each course of the meal. The meal structure provides a platform to showcase different elements of Italian cuisine. Some eat the traditional Italian meal structure frequently, while others only partake of certain courses. For some, the full traditional Italian meal structure is often saved for festivities and celebrations. The meal structure developed over centuries in Italy. I have sourced references from Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta, where she uses the anthropological method of interview to gain insight into the transformation of Italy, its food culture and relationship with food, noodles, and pasta during the nineteenth and twentieth century. In this research paper, I seek to ascertain the origin and significance of the traditional Italian meal structure, pasta’s importance to the meal, Italy’s identity and heritage, as well as the pasta experience of various socioeconomic and regional groups. Pasta’s undeniable relationship to Italy and its identity likely explain why noodles and pasta are the “Primo”.







After World War II and the age of economic prosperity in Italy, noodles and pasta became more widespread. Today, pasta plays a central role in Italian cuisine. In the traditional Italian meal structure, pasta is the Primo, but is the third in the order. No other course has such a welcome in the Italian meal structure, which represents the importance of pasta and the noodle in Italian Cuisine and the esteem bestowed upon it. The traditional Italian meal structure begins with the Apertivo, which is typically a beverage, such as wine. The Antipasto is the next act, setting the table for the entrance of the Primo. The Antipasto is lighter than the Primo and usually consists of salami, prosciutto, cheeses and other lighter fare. The Primo typically consists of hot noodles and pastas, lasagna, vermicelli, gnocchi, et al. The Secondo follows, and includes varieties of meats, fish, and poultry. The Insalata or salad follows. Also accompanying the meal is the Dolce, comprising of sweet dishes, such as tiramisu, cake, pie, and other confections. The Caffè follows with an espresso being a leading example. A beverage with digestive properties, the Digestivo closes the meal. In addition to the traditional Italian meal structure, Italians have traditional snack times: Spuntini is in the midmorning, and Merenda is in the mid-afternoon. As the Primo however, pasta and noodles have a signature position in Italy’s food culture: “pasta may be the unchallenged symbol of Italian food” (Zanini De Vita 1). During research of pasta’s importance in Italy, De Vita “identified more than thirteen hundred pasta names, counting both factory-made and homemade, which represent almost as many different shapes or sizes, though some variations are, of course, small” (Zanini De Vita 2).

In the traditional Italian meal structure, food types are served separately with pasta, meat, and vegetables coming to the table in different courses or parts of the meal, plated separately. This distinct separation is clear, except in the case of stuffed pastas, where meats, cheeses and other ingredients can be encased by the noodle. These unique stuffed pastas are ravioli, tortello, cannelloni, agnolotti, et al. We see this exception in history first with the ravioli, with early definitions describing the ravioli as “a pasta wrapping filled with meat or other foods, folded into a triangle” (Zanini De Vita 4). Nevertheless, regardless of the form, pasta is an integral component of traditional Italian meal structure. Because the prevalence of pasta in Italy is relatively recent, one may be able to conclude that the traditional Italian meal structure featuring pasta is also quite modern. Studying the progression of Italian cuisine over the last two centuries, we find that the “spread of pasta on Italian tables, as we understand the term today, is relatively modern. Until the years just after World War II, four-fifths of the population of Italy living in the countryside had a diet generically based on plants” (Zanini De Vita 9-10).

Food pyramids of the Mediterranean diet even in recent day support the widespread prevalence and bountiful consumption of fruits and vegetables as part of the diet. We observe that for many Italians in the first half of the twentieth century “pasta was reserved for feast days, often served in a legume soup” (Zanini De Vita 10). Through anthropological methods and documented history, we can confirm that pasta even in the mid-twentieth century was not a daily staple in Italy. Zanini De Vita also states that “we can conclude that the origin of pasta is not Italian, not Greek, not Jewish, not Arab” and that “whatever may be its complicated origins, it is clear that pasta has served as a sometimes opulent substitute for bread” (Zanini De Vita 17).

Pasta was not native to Italy, and the economic climate of the early to mid-nineteenth century was prohibitive for widespread pasta consumption across Italy, but certain groups held pasta as a staple: “reflecting the national culture at the middle of the nineteenth century, which states that ‘For the Italians of Mezzogiorno, of Liguria, and of some other Italian regions, pasta already constituted the main dish and one of two daily meals’” (Zanini De Vita 20). It seems that during Italy’s early national adoption of pasta, a dichotomy existed between the wealthy and those without economic means. The capital of Liguria is Genoa, which bears a history as a port capital with a thriving merchant class. The economic position of Genoa and similar cities in Italy in the nineteenth century would have afforded its prosperous inhabitants with access to pasta. We are reminded of this food disparity by the historical accounts of the Italian diet in the twentieth century. Many Italians “until just after World War II, the county had eaten “green,” that is only vegetable soup, with pasta as a rule reserved for the tables of the middle and upper classes in town and cities and only occasionally for the feast-day tables of the poor” (Zanini De Vita 2).

The emergence of the Italian meal structure could draw its roots from the feast-day traditions of the poor. This class in Italy may have savored the opportunity to eat pasta, noodles and thus created a meal structure with pasta and the noodle at the center. They would have been able to afford pasta and the accompanying elements of Italian Meal structure for feast-days, and it would have been significant for them to elaborately plan and make distinct courses in order to savor the experience of eating pasta, which was more rare for them than the middle and upper class pasta consumers to whom pasta was more affordable and accessible.

In studying Italy’s pasta traditions, we see that “greater prosperity and better living conditions in some areas can be inferred from the ingredients used in the local pasta” (Zanini De Vita 2). We see that in modern Italy post World War II during the economic boom, pasta is made and consumed more frequently by a mass audience. Italian meal structure may have first developed as an ideal to be aspired to by the poorer classes. The development of the country’s infrastructure and economic prosperity enabled that ideal to materialize with the country’s affection for pasta and noodles being at the core of this realization. The history of pasta in Italy illustrates the enjoyment of pasta by the poorer groups, who may have used their creativity in pasta making to create the traditional Italian meal structure to further enhance their enjoyment of noodles, pasta, and food. These groups may have derived satisfaction from their meal in a way that their wealthier counterparts did not experience. It is summarized that even through the industrialization of pasta, “they have never matched the creative fantasy of the Italian peasants. Rovetta estimated that industry had invented six hundred different types of pasta. But in this book, which also includes many factory-made shapes, more than thirteen hundred products are cited” (Zanini De Vita 19). Poorer groups in Italy may have had a greater appreciation for food due to their material lack. Many of the inhabitants of the poorer, less developed regions may have pursued food for enjoyment because “the march of industrialization has been long and torturous throughout Italy, which at the beginning of the twentieth century still lacked electricity and channels of communication” (Zanini De Vita 9).

However, industrialization has made pasta more accessible nationally. Zanini De Vita summarizes the effects of technological advancements in transportation and globalization of the foods indigenous to Italy: “my interviews of these older people also made me more aware of how rapidly the agrarian landscape had been transformed and how the grain varieties once essential to the making of pasta and other foods had disappeared with the entry onto the market of superior varieties from other countries” (Zanini De Vita 1-2). Economic development and prosperity can be linked to the gaining of infrastructure such as roads, acquisition of automobiles and more frequent travel of residents of different regions to various parts of Italy, taking with them their local ingredients, noodles and pasta. We see that “the advent of the modern pasta industry, facilitated by large-scale retail chains, has fostered maximum diffusion of shapes that were once limited to their place of origin” (Zanini De Vita 6). Given that some areas were developed and gained roads in the 1960s, migration of various local pasta types within Italy may have happened quite recently.

Urbanization, industrialization and growing economic prosperity lead to the change of the Italian diet. Growing prosperity lead to an increased consumption of pasta by those in the upper economic classes and those in urban centers. This prosperity ties to the ravioli, and meat stuffed pastas which are an exception to the rules of the traditional Italian meal structure, combining elements of the Primo and the Secondo. The proliferation of stuffed pasta could be associated with additional prosperity as consumers were able to afford pasta, and meat to fill their pasta, along with meat for the Secondo. Economic advancement and increased consumption of pasta are closely correlated in Italy’s history, beginning “with the economic boom that began in the early 1960s, pasta began to be made daily in rural homes, and these are the formats codified by tradition. At the same time, the emerging urban bourgeoisie were eating pasta every day. On Sunday, they served special pastas, perhaps stuffed, with even more special condiments” (Zanini De Vita 10). As pasta became industrialized and more accessible and affordable, pasta transformed from less of a delicacy to a staple, from handmade jewel to factory produced unit. We see the correlation between the increase of wealth and the ability to enjoy pasta daily, as the “ready supply of pasta was an urban, a Neopolitan, phenomenon,” but “throughout the region, the rural poor ate mostly “green” (Zanini De Vita 7).

The cycle of pasta being homemade by rural groups and factory-made in wealthier urban centers, has now turned to being factory-made for consumption for much of Italy with the wealthier using less factory-made pasta, shifting to homemade, handmade pasta. The factory-made pasta in Italy “was also generally without eggs” and is now “general among the less well-off classes of all Italy, while it is falling off among the wealthier” (Zanini De Vita 20). This change does not mean that pasta has not lost its place as the Primo among the less well-off classes of Italy, but rather the change to factory-made underscores the richness of handmade pasta and the value of the time and resources spent making it at home. Perhaps handmade pasta is still savored as part of the traditional Italian meal structure for the most significant feasts and celebrations.

The various regions, provinces, and economic groups of Italy have contributed significantly to traditional Italian meal structure. The rural and economically depressed provinces of Italy are responsible for the vast variety of pasta and noodle types, using their creativity to author pastas and recipes that have become part of Italian culture and cuisine:
“every little town, almost every family, called these pastas something different, and they served them on feast days enveloped in flavorful sauces of pork, lamb, or vegetables, all linked by the obligatory tomato and parmigiano” (Zanini De Vita 10).

Offering a counterpoint to the hypothesis that the traditional Italian meal structure was developed by rural, less prosperous groups, the traditional Italian meal structure may have its roots in Rome. During the economic prosperity and opulence of the wealthy during the Roman empire, the multicourse meal structure may have been developed for frequent feasts and dining parties of the wealthy. Modern day Rome is in the region of Lazio. According to Julia Della Croce in The Classic Italian Cookbook, “if anything, the cooking of Lazio is Etruscan in character: simple and earthy. The singular gastronomical legacy of Rome is not what is eaten but how. Romans still love lavish display of food and conviviality at the table” (Della Croce 11). Della Croce illustrates the scene of a dining experience in Rome, stating that “the air is filled with voices, all speaking at once, and the aromas of multitudinous dishes” (Della Croce 11).

Etruscan influence on Rome and Italian culture and cuisine may be the genesis for the traditional Italian meal structure. Rome began conquering the Etruscan civilization and ultimately absorbed the civilization into the Roman Republic. The Etruscan civilization encompassing modern day Tuscany, Umbria and parts of Lazio could be credited with the DNA for the traditional Italian meal structure. After the fall of Rome, subsequent invasions, and economic impoverishment, the meal structure may have laid dormant. With the growing wealth of Italy during the economic boom, the traditional Italian meal structure may have awakened, with pasta leading the way. Quite possibly, perhaps the roots of the traditional Italian meal structure are present today as a carryover of the Romans and the wealth that accompanied the group at the height of the empire.

It is possible that the present day traditional Italian meal structure traveled to Italy and was spread throughout the country similarly to how other foods and cuisine influences were brought to the country by groups invading various regions of Italy. Zanini De Vita notes that “by what mysterious channels the various homemade formats spread throughout Italy is difficult to say, though one thing is certain: conquest played a role” (Zanini De Vita 5). It seems that conquest and economic prosperity are a powerful combination for yielding new food culture.

The recipe for the genesis of the traditional Italian meal structure could be economic prosperity coupled with the love of and proliferation of pasta, with the industrialization of pasta making it more affordable and accessible. You cannot produce the traditional Italian meal structure without the noodle or pasta. If historically reserved for the economically prosperous, pastas surge in consumption is closely tied to the growth of the Italian meal structure, which is incomplete without pasta. 

Regardless of the traditional Italian meal structure’s actual birthplace, it has nurtured and encouraged Italy’s unification and present identity because the structure can be followed in every region, with local elements found in that region used for each course, compelting the essential requirements of the meal structure. Pasta and the traditional Italian meal structure may have served to facilitate Italian unification as food has unifying and community creating powers.

An orchestra of regional Italian food elements and ingredients, the traditional Italian meal structure is the crescendo of Italian cuisine, showcasing the flavors and food of all regions and provinces. Much like a symphony, all courses and their elements collaborate to create a masterpiece. Antiquity and modernity share the commonality of the feast, and the traditional Italian meal structure with pasta as the Primo is the living legacy of Italy’s past and present.















Works Cited

Della Croce, Julia. The Classic Italian Cookbook, Dorling Kindersley, 1996.  

Zanini De Vita, Oretta. Encyclopedia of Pasta, translated by Maureen Fant, University of            California Press, 2009.

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