Farfalle, fiocchi, and fusilli; penne, pipe, and rigatoni; a dozen sizes of spaghetti, and its relatives spaghettini and spaghettoni, not forgetting bavetti, bandelle and bucatini... from the mundane to the exotic, the list of Italy's pastas runs into the hundreds. How many bows, tubes and shells can one country need? Historical, geographical and gastronomic reasons may go some way to explaining the enormous variety available but Italy's relationship with pasta is far more complicated than even that.
Pasta is a foodstuff with such fundamental integrity that it has not been necessary, over the 1,000 years that it has been known to exist, to alter its basic ingredients. And when those root components - hard durum wheat flour and water - are mixed to a sturdy but willingly malleable paste, to an Italian they plead for creativity.
While the Far East is the original home of the noodle, the true history of pasta remains foggy. What is known is that by the 13th century just about everyone in Europe and the Middle East was eating some sort of grain- based paste (the Greeks had itria and laganon, the Persians ate lakhshah), and that pasta came to Italy in the form of little strings made by the Arabs who occupied Sicily. Those strings formed the basis of the whole Italian pasta asciutta (dried packaged pasta) phenomenon, but when pasta dough met the Sicilian town of Palermo, it found itself a master that would literally push it to extremes of ingenuity and inventiveness.
Made in the home over the centuries, pasta grew to be a popular, if labour- intensive food. It was the arrival of the mechanical mixer and press, in the 18th century, that made it more affordable, and pasta asciutta dug its roots into the cuisine of the South. Spaghetti freed Neapolitans from their tradition of cabbage and meat meals, and they were justifiably and passionately grateful - pasta features frequently in local art, literature, theatre and songs. Spaghetti was part of the landscape: the straw-coloured strands sashayed as they hung on racks in the streets, drying in the sea breeze. Vendors sold the staple dressed with cheese and oil out of kiosks - spaghetti could be eaten with fingers out of a piece of paper.
But pasta asciutta took its time to leave Italy. While ice-cream and wine hurtled their way up the lines of latitude to the rest of Europe, pasta asciutta - the dried durum-wheat pasta now seen as an international fast food - remained in the regions where it had first been made, with exports constrained to countries with immigrant Italian populations.
Pasta was long due its big bang; to be swept up in an amalgamation of mechanical automation and genius marketing during Italy's 1950s "economic miracle", the swiftest industrial revolution in Europe. As the country transformed from a largely agricultural to an industrial nation, the rest of the world cottoned on to la dolce vita, the incomparable art of good living. By the 1960s in London's newly cool Soho streets, strikingly wrapped packs of pasta were there with Vespas and Lambrettas, the Fiat 500, the Alfa Romeo Giulia and Gaggia espresso machines. Its inclusion was no accident.
"Pasta manages to be a vernacular that is also sophisticated, gloriously adaptable and fascinating - it is part of the Italian achievement to see beauty and to delight in everyday things," says Stephen Bayley, designer of a forthcoming exhibition, Pasta: Culture on a Plate. "More so than any other foodstuff, the paste lends itself to cutting, moulding or extruding into decorative shapes whose purpose is as much aesthetic as gastronomic," he explains, "even if the results are as whimsical as they are practical."
For their part, pasta manufacturers insist that the current list of 150 designs is truly needed. In all seriousness they cite regionalism, tradition and the appropriate curves, holes, edges and surfaces …