The Invasion of the Pasta People

by Pat Fortunato

When Did Everything Change?

Some say it was the Vietnam War, when we stopped believing a single word our government said, including “and” and “the.” Maybe it was when we started calling love affairs “relationships,” thereby sanitizing the romance right out of our sex lives. Or was it the rise of political correctness, when suddenly absolutely anything you said about anyone became incredibly insulting to someone.

I agree with all of the above. But I have another explanation:
It was the day we started calling spaghetti “pasta.”

Growing up as an Italian-American, the only time I remember hearing the word “pasta” was in conjunction with “fagioli,” although we were more inclined to call that bean and macaroni dish “pasta fazool,” a Brooklyn-American version of Neapolitan dialect made famous by Dean Martin in the song “That’s Amore.”

It was love all right. We loved our macaroni, which was different from spaghetti, both of which came in many varieties: from angel hair to bucatini, tubitini to ziti, ravioli to lasagna. In truth, we were very fussy about which pasta (although we didn’t call it that) went with which sauce, and everyone and his uncle (and, especially, his aunt) had their own, fiercely held opinions about this. But we called them by their names, so that it was linguini with clam sauce, or spaghetti and meatballs.

There were Meatballs Back then.

These days, it’s all different. And mostly for the better. You rarely encounter soggy, overcooked lasagna or baked ziti anymore, and you can get all kinds of stuffing for ravioli, not just the classic and one-time ubiquitous cheese. Now spinach is a given. Not to mention mushroom. Or duck. How about lobster! Crab!! Veal and truffle!! Almost anything you can think of. And so far, I haven’t met a ravioli I didn’t like.

It’s just that somehow I feel injured. . .

The general American public, against which I have nothing, or very little, has co-opted my heritage. They talk about pasta as if they invented it! They no longer marvel at my family’s Sunday spaghetti dinners. Although, to be fair, we really don’t have those any more. For one thing, we learned the word “cholesterol.”

And yet. A small part of me (and many, although not all, parts of me are small) does feel cheated.

How dare they take my people’s favorite food and make it their own.

Sometimes I yearn for the days when non-Italians spoke of making a spaghetti dinner and “We” felt superior to “Them,” because “They” had no idea how to make sauce, which we called “gravy.” Good god, some of “Them” actually used ketchup! And rinsed the spaghetti after cooking, or ate it with bread and butter—and milk! Grotesqueries, all.

But not any more. Now people know about all kinds of fancy pasta. Vodka sauce has become pedestrian. Rachel Ray makes saffron with lentils and tagliatelle. Personally, I never heard of saffron until I traveled to Spain, although lentil soup was a staple, especially when there was a ham bone left over from last night’s meal.

Spaghetti carbonara, about which my uncle once said, “If I want bacon I’ll go to the diner,” is now commonplace. Even at some diners. And don’t be surprised to see fettucine primavera on the menu. Fancy restaurants? Fuhgeddaboutit. Malfatti (roast suckling pig and fresh arugula), anyone? Burrata ravioli with truffle oil? Tagliolini with mussels and peas?

You name it, some ristorante has it. Everyone has it. Harrumph.

My only consolation is that not everyone, practically no one, in fact, has experienced the joy of home-made ravioli. Made. At. Home. My job was to cut out each piece using a kitchen glass, then to prick the edges with a fork. I bet I could still do it if I had to. And I used to make a mean sauce, and still might, but why? I don’t have to.

I can get perfectly good tomato sauce in a jar these days, plus any kind of pasta I can think of — and some I’ve never heard of — and not just in Italian stores (not many of those left), but in almost any supermarket. Things change. It’s called progress, as opposed to Progresso, another trip down meatball lane. And as I’ve said, it’s mostly a good thing.

But I ask you this: If Yankee Doodle went to town a-riding on a pony, and stuck a feather in his hat . . . would he call it “Pasta?”

I think not.

Pat Fortunato: After working in the publishing business for many years, I now write for pleasure, especially for my blog: MY AGE IS UNLISTED.