Is there anything more satisfying than a huge bowl of freshly sauced pasta at the end of a long day? Few meals can be as pleasurable. But the stories behind your basic carbonara, puttanesca and bolognese sauces are anything but simple. Italian pasta sauces have a rich history that can be traced back centuries, all the way to ancient Rome. And the decision to make your carbonara with cream, use multiple types of meat in your ragu or put cheese in the seafood pasta can create just as much excited dinner conversation among Italian families as the latest political hubbub.
Food historians believe that lasagna is one of the world’s oldest pastas, and was likely eaten by ancient Greeks and Romans. These long, flat noodles would have been easy to roll out and dry in the sun or bake in rudimentary ovens, and cheese was a mainstay in lasagna recipes even in these early days. A 14th century recipe book calls for lasagna noodles to be layered in a baking dish with grated cheese and pulverized spices: not oregano and garlic like we might see now, but more likely cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper.
Although we think of spaghetti with tomato sauce as the quintessential Italian dish, tomatoes didn’t become part of the Italian diet until the 1800s. And the first recipe for pasta with tomato sauce actually appeared in a French cookbook from 1797. So the tomato-based pasta sauces we tend to think of as typically Italian – bolognese, pomodoro, puttanesca – are actually more recent developments.
Of these, puttanesca has the most colorful history. A spicy spaghetti dish of tomatoes, capers, anchovies and garlic, the name literally translates to “whore’s spaghetti.” According to popular legend, this dish was what prostitutes would cook while waiting on their next appointment. In actuality, a restaurant owner made up the dish after a group of late arriving customers instructed him to make pasta “facci una puttanata qualsiasi”, roughly translated as “make any kind of garbage.” The slang term for garbage is derived from the word puttana, which also means prostitute, giving the sauce its famous name.
Carbonara is a delicious sauce of fresh egg yolks, crisp cured pork (usually bacon or pancetta), grated cheese and plenty of black pepper. The name of the sauce is derived from the word “carbonaro,” or “charcoal burner,” which may refer to the type of stoves the dish was first cooked on, the workers who first ate it or even the Carbonari, a revolutionary secret society that played a key role in early attempts aimed at securing Italian unification. Another creamy concoction made its debut in 1914 when restaurateur Alfred Di Lelio created a mixture of rich butter, grated Parmesan and black pepper to restore his wife’s strength after she gave birth to their son—also giving birth to the popular alfredo sauce.
Pasta primavera is a relatively new addition to the sauce pantheon and it was created in New York City, not Italy. In 1977 Sirio Maccioni, owner of the famous Le Cirque restaurant, whipped up a new dish featuring cream sauce, garlic and fresh spring vegetables. Primavera quickly became one of the most talked about dishes in town, but Maccioni hadn’t set out to scale new culinary heights—he had simply improvised when a lack of ingredients left him with nothing but vegetables to garnish the pasta with.