ROME — Oretta Zanini de Vita, the pre-eminent Italian food historian, seems to have a tool for every pasta: a centuries-old ravioli cutter, a wooden stamp that mints pasta like coins, a chitarra for creating thick strands of tagliatelle.
On a recent morning, as she leaned over a custom-made poplar-wood board and rolled out a simple dough of eggs and flour for a southern Italian-style strozzapreti, she took out a long, thin reed.
“If you don’t have a reed, you can always use an umbrella spoke,” she said cheerily, rolling flat strips of dough around the reed until the sides curled.
Zanini De Vita, a sprightly 73, has curly blond hair and bright blue eyes that light up when she gets animated — which is often. As she raced around her ground-floor apartment fetching ingredients and utensils, her white cotton smock trimmed with lace gave her the appearance of a cherubic altar boy.
Her conversation is as animated as her cooking. Her words flow like a river in full flood as she speaks about pasta, the subject of her latest book, the “Encyclopedia of Pasta,” which just appeared in English from the University of California Press, translated by the Rome-based food writer Maureen B. Fant, who has contributed articles to The New York Times. Through hundreds of descriptions of pasta styles, with explanations of their origins and of how they’re made, the book places pasta in its social and historical context.
“I think of her as a kind of Julia Child,” said Mona Talbott, the executive chef at the American Academy in Rome and coordinator of its Rome Sustainable Food Project, founded by Alice Waters. “Julia Child demystified French food. Oretta demystifies pasta.”
Indeed, in its 300-plus pages, the “Encyclopedia of Pasta” ranges from abbotta pezziende, a short pasta that means “feed the beggar” in Abruzzo dialect, to the zumari of Puglia, a long pasta traditionally added to vegetable soups. In between there are the corzetti of Liguria and Piedmont, the little stamped-out coins; pi fasacc of Lombardy, which look like little babies in a papoose; avemarie, which cook for as long as it takes to say a Hail Mary; and several dozen variations on macaroni and ravioli. Each illustrated entry lists ingredients, provenance and how the pasta is traditionally served.
The range of shapes shows that cooking “was a way of self-expression for women to show their creativity and imagination with little or no resources,” Talbott said. She cited gnocchi ricci, or curly gnocchi, a specialty of Amatrice in Lazio, the city famous for spaghetti all’amatriciana, which are made by kneading together one dough made with flour and eggs, another made with flour, boiling water and salt.
The book also explodes a few myths. Do not think of mentioning the popular belief that Marco Polo had a role in the history of pasta. “Ma no,” she said in a jovial paroxysm of outrage. “When Marco Polo came back they had been eating pasta in Italy for 200 years!”
Instead, she notes in her encyclopedia, dried pasta made with durum wheat was found in Italy starting around 800 A.D. It was spread by the Muslim conquerors of Sicily, and by the 12th century the maritime republics of Genoa and Pisa marketed dried pasta.
“Documents exist to prove this, should there be anyone left — and it appears that there is — who still believes that Marco Polo introduced noodles into Italy in 1296 on his return to Venice from China,” she writes.
Zanini De Vita knows her pasta and her history. She was born in Bologna, the sine qua non of Italian culinary excellence. Her father was an architect and painter. Her mother died shortly after she was born, and she learned to cook from the nuns at the convent school where she was educated.
“I always left the study room to see what the sister was up to in the kitchen,” she recalled. The nuns taught the girls that their tortellini dough was thin enough only when they held it up the window and could see the nearby Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca.
Before agreeing to demonstrate her own pasta-making techniques, Zanini De Vita, who used to run her own cooking school and still teaches the occasional lesson, insisted it be known that the “Encyclopedia of Pasta” is not “a recipe book.”
She is correct; it is a social history disguised as a food book. A repository of collective memory, it shows a country so varied as to defy unification, and so poor for so long that pasta was a luxury for four-fifths of Italians until the prosperity that came after World War II.
For centuries “pasta was a luxury, you ate it only inside vegetable soup,” Zanini DeVita said. In the southern Basilicata region it was eaten “once or twice a year: for Easter, Christmas and Carnival.” Flour was for the rich. “The poor wouldn’t even see it in paintings,” she said. Time and again in her research she was struck by “the poverty of southern Italy — of all Italy but of the south in particular,” she added.
The history of pasta is also the history of conquest. The orecchiette of Puglia, “little ears” that lovingly show their makers’ thumbprints, date back to the 13th-century domination of southern Italy by the Angevins of France. “They resemble the crosets of Provence, which are still made in Piedmont with the same name,” she writes.
To research the book, Zanini De Vita spent four years traveling around Italy, looking around in archives and interviewing hundreds of people, sometimes striking up conversations with old women sitting outside the local church. “In some towns, the first thing I’d do is talk to the parish priest,” she said.
“In food there’s lots of regionalism,” Zanini De Vita said. “Everyone thinks he has the most authentic recipe.”
Soon, the cherry tomatoes Zanini De Vita had put into the oven to serve with the strozzapreti were done roasting. She ducked into her tiny galley kitchen, designed to be small enough so that no one can bother her while she cooks, and took them out. She mushed them animatedly with a wooden spoon, sprinkling in a mixture of aged Parmesan, basil and garlic from near Sulmona in Abruzzo that she had ground in a food processor. She tossed them with the cooked pasta, adding olive oil. Hers came from Sabina, outside Rome. “It has to be very good oil,” she said.
It was. The pasta was delicious and chewy. The roasted tomatoes had melted into a rich paste, with a tiny kick of garlic and the coarseness of the Parmesan to bind them.
In recent years, Italy has transformed from a nation of emigrants to a nation of immigrants. But Zanini De Vita finds the debate about whether immigrants can prepare Italian food ridiculous.
“It’s only a question of technique and ingredients, so it’s sheer stupidity to think that they can’t do it,” she said.
Still, she added, perhaps non-Italians are missing an ingredient.
“What would be harder for foreigners to do is to invent things,” she said. Or go on instinct. “We have that inside our DNA,” she said.