Window Seat--can Of Worms
Thursday, April 2, 1998
Marco Polo might not have realized it at the time, but when he let it slip that he ''discovered'' pasta while knocking around China, he opened up a real can of worms. The interpretation of that statement was recorded in the ultimate, first-of-a-kind travelogue, "The Adventures of Marco Polo," dictated by our hero to his cell-mate while sitting back at home in the pokey, and it sparked a debate which hasn''t been settled some 700 years later.
It''s kind of funny that whole cultures are still trying to claim credit for being the first guy on the block to mix up flour and water. But considering the hundreds of shapes, sizes and varieties that have fed every semblance of civilization since around 1000 BC, the credit for being the first to use your noodle is a pretty impressive feather to stick in your cap.
Some semanticists insist that Marco really meant that he''d discovered pasta ''like ours, back home in Venice.'' There''s actually a recipe in an Apician cookbook from around Etruscan times for lasagna, a brainstorm which ensued, it is guessed, after somebody got the bright idea to boil their flatbread.
In fact, by the 16th century, Italians weren''t just eating macaroni almost every day, they were speaking it. Macaronic Latin, sort of a colloquial Venetian rap, was being taught by rapmaster Teofilo Folengo, who noted that it was an artificial language that ran a little coarse--just like the macaroni of the era, hence the name.
Over the centuries, the product has improved, you may be sure. In fact, Americans like it so much we now eat around $30 million worth of dry pasta imported from Italy every year. That was enough to make the US Commerce Department a little nervous, so they came up with a pasta tariff back in ''95. Which means that there''s now going to be a lot more Italian-sounding names in the Alabama yellow pages when some of these companies bring their businesses over here.
Ask Douglas Stevens, proprietor of Pasta Palate in Carmel, what makes Italians such experts at rolling out a better rigatoni, and he''ll tell you like it is. "The flour," he replies. "They use 100% semolina flour, just like I do here." And, they seem to know their pasta machines, too. "Mine are all from Italy and can process about 125 pounds of dough in an hour." If you happen to be speaking ravioli, that''s roughly 5,000 little pasta pillows in an hour.
Nico Mavris uses Pasta Palate pasta on his menus both at La Dolce Vita and at Nico, as do about 70 other local restaurants. Stevens offers several doughs to choose from besides plain--spinach, herb, tomato, whole wheat--and a large variety of fillings like smoked salmon with sun-dried tomato and spinach, chicken curry, goat cheese and sun-dried tomato, and crab with red peppers and green onion. And if you''re a restaurateur who wants to market your own signature pasta on your menu, bring in the filling and Stevens will take it from there.
Formerly in the hotel business, the first time Stevens saw fresh pasta being made, he was hooked. And, for the last 14 years, he''s been keeping the Central Coast entwined in the stuff. So devoted is he to promoting fresh pasta, he travels to Italy every year to seek out new ideas. He finds that it''s also easier over there to converse in macaroni.
So, as far as this column is concerned, Italy discovered pasta. However, it must be noted, Cup-A-Noodles is strictly American.