The History of Pasta Shapes: Encyclopedia of Pasta Review

Making pasta; illustration from the 15th century edition of Tacuinum Sanitatis, a Latin translation of the Arabic work Taqwīm al-sihha by Ibn Butlan.

The History of Pasta Shapes – The Italian People and Pasta

Just in case you were having sleepless nights concerning the birthplace of pasta, the esteemed food critic, Oretta Zanini de Vita confirms that there were records of pasta in Italy 500 years before Marco Polo returned from China; so pasta was, in fact, invented in Italy.  I’m glad we cleared the air on this bit of trivia so we can get to the important stuff!

The “important stuff” is, of course, pasta.  Pasta is akin to religion in most parts of Italy and like many Italian “ways of being” or “living in the world” (can you tell I suffered through reading Heidegger in college?) pasta is done differently, and at the risk of sounding austere, just plain better in Italy then any other place on the planet.  Enter the food historian Zanini de Vita and her marvelously researched and well written book the Encyclopedia of Pasta.  The book, comprised of three main sections, including the seminal section entitled, “Traditional Pasta Shapes A to Z” is an all encompassing work touching on class struggle, religion and trade routes, the social history of Italy, and more!

bucatini and pesto sauce; the rule that pesto should only be served with short pasta is incorrect
tagliatelle and tomato sauce

The Social and Food History of Italy

Zanini de Vita reveals and explains the highly complex standards for pairing sauces (or condimento as they refer to it in Italy) with the correct pasta shape. Fusilli, for example, is generally served as pastasciutta with a “piquant ragu especially of lamb or pork, but also with vegetable based sauces, and plenty of grated local pecorino.”  All of the 300+ pasta shape entries are illustrated including the main ingredients and how the pasta is served, along with a short history. This section is truly a magnificent piece of research and will make any person interested in food gap in awe and, of course, hunger!

Just in case you weren’t aware the author of this blog is attempting to consume all 300+ known pasta shapes (viz., The Scordo Pasta Challenge) and having had roughly 20 of the shapes he understands this to be a monumental challenge akin to solving the mind/body problem.  

The Encyclopedia of Pasta, as Zanini de Vita states clearly, is not a recipe book, rather she insists, as the New York Times writer Rachel Donadio revealed, it is “a social history disguised as a food book.”  You can decide for yourself what kind of book Zanini de Vita has written, but one thing is certain: she has created an Epicurean masterpiece of the written kind.

the author making tortellini. thanks to the Society of Fellows American Academy of Rome for the photo



  1. That book sounds like a really great resource. I am looking forward to more of your pasta eating adventures and hope you reach your goal!

  2. Book Review: Domenica Marchetti The Glorious Pasta of Italy

    (photo: the photos found in the Glorious Pasta of Italy are truly impressive; on the left is a photo of our pasta pesto)  There’s no way around the obvious fact that Italians are slaves to pasta.  The typical Italian (northern…

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