Archaeologists believe that the earliest noodles were made about 7,000 years ago in central Asia. As trade routes opened, the dish was slowly imported westward, likely via Arabic nomads and merchants. In the Mediterranean, the process of making noodles was refined, and recipes were adapted to use local crops such as durum, a cousin of wheat. When the noodles were dried, they would last indefinitely (an extremely valuable property in an age before refrigeration). Over time, pasta’s affordability, convenience, and versatility allowed it to become firmly rooted in Mediterranean cuisine.
From single, humble, hand-stretched noodles, a broad family tree of over 300 ornamental and utilitarian pasta shapes have evolved. They can be long such as spaghetti or fettuccine, tubes such as macaroni or penne, made for soups such as orzo, for stuffing as in ravioli or tortellini, or purely decorative (I’m looking at you, SpongeBob-shaped Spaghettios).
Many shapes hold cultural significance to the regions of their creation as well as specific utility in local cuisine. Ziti, a pasta native to Sicily, is shaped like a long, smooth tube with a clean, straight cut. Penne pasta comes from the Campagne region, characterized by its shorter length, ridges, and angled cut resembling the quill pen that inspired its name.
The variations may seem fanciful and arbitrary at first, but consider their uses in cuisine: the thicker, longer tubes of ziti are perfect for layering with cheese and can withstand getting baked in a casserole without burning or drying out. Conversely, when the penne is tossed in a marinara, its ridges are perfect for grabbing up the tomatoey goodness. A discerning chef will select specific pasta shapes for their appearance, flavor, and functionality.