Paccheri, ziti and vermicelli: the history of pasta

by Francesco Li Volti

Baked paccheri, ziti to Genoese and vermicelli with seafood. Which Neapolitan has never eaten these dishes, indeed these pastas. In fact in Naples, but now throughout Italy, there are hundreds of types of pasta. An anecdote in this sense that could help to understand how much pasta has always existed in Naples could be that of the visit to Gragnano del King Umberto I of Savoy and the Queen Margherita.

Everyone is crazy about the king's pasta

It was 1885 when the king and queen went to Gragnano for the solemn inauguration of the railway line that connected Gragnano with Castellammare di Stabia and consequently with Naples and Caserta. There was a lot of fervor around, in such a small village and in the hinterland, moments like this are lived with a lot of passion. On the occasion of these memorable events and for other illustrious guests present in those days in the city, each pasta maker had fun creating a different type of pasta every day. And this is how the best ones have reached the present day, so that even our palates could fully enjoy their goodness.

The macaronari

The Paccheri

In the Neapolitan culinary tradition, Neapolitan paccheri have very rooted origins. It was once the "pasta of the poor" because they are large and just a few were enough to fill the plate. Paccheri (or slaps for those who love Italianizations) means slap, like an open hand slap also evoked by the noise they make when they are mixed in the bowl full of sauce. The etymology dates back to ancient Greek pankeir that is all (πας) the hand (χειρ). The Paccheri, at sight, seem similar to the "sleeves" and instead are thinner and smoother inside with a touch of roughness that makes them unique.

Paccheri, ziti e vermicelli: la storia della pasta

The Ziti

Even if packaged as long pasta, the tradition of southern cuisine requires that before cooking them they are broken by hand into a plate, thus assuming the "length" of the palm of the hand that performs this operation. In ancient times the ziti they were called zite o macaroni of the zita because they were usually cooked during the bride's wedding dinners, which in Naples is called precisely zita. The variant large were the zitoni, set for the binge, or weddings.

The Vermicelli

Today they are commonly mistaken for spaghetti, but once upon a time i vermicelli they were a very popular type of pasta. Already present in Liber De Coquina of the thirteenth century, they were called so because, being hand-made in ancient times, they were once much shorter and more crooked than today and resembled small worms. One of Ferdinand IV's favorite dishes was the vermicelli alla Borbonica, or with garlic and oil. It seems the king was fond of it. Today the vermicelli have been replaced by spaghetti, which came from the East thanks to the travels of Marco Polo in 1295.

Paccheri, ziti e vermicelli: la storia della pasta
Paccheri, ziti and vermicelli, the history of pasta. Photo by Giuliano Galiano published on the Facebook group Napoli Retrò.


Maccheronea, History, anecdotes and recipes, Lejla Mancusi Sorrentino, Grimaldi and C. Editori, Naples, 2000

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