Italy is the world leader in both production and consumption of pasta. No surprise. In the south, the birthplace of pasta, almost everyone (99%) eats it, on average 4 to 5 times a week. About a third eat it every day. Southerners tend to eat dried pasta, while people from the northwest prefer fresh pasta.
But the pasta landscape is changing. Besides the growth of whole wheat pasta, the real fans of the national dish are moving the geographic center of gravity toward central Italy—where 45% eat pasta every day compared to 32% in the south. And the average portion of a plate of pasta in the South is about 80 grams (.18 pounds) a person, the lowest percentage in the country. (Americans take note: 80 grams per portion means that there are 5-6 servings in a pound of pasta, depending on the sauce.)
Questioned about the quality factors of pasta, Italians from southern regions like Campania, Abruzzo, Molise, Puglia, Sardinia, and Sicily—areas with the best knowledge and appreciation of this food—respond in line with the national opinion. In first place among the indicators of quality is pasta that remains al dente in the cooking, then the quality of the grain, followed by pasta that is tied perfectly to the seasoning.
Every Italian has a preference among the more than 300 forms of pasta, but Italy is divided in two on one dimension. Rome is the watershed between these two worlds and two philosophies, which were created by differences in climate and history. South of Rome, Italians like smooth pasta; from Rome north, Italians prefer ridged (rigata) pasta.
Why? In the north, rigata became popular in order to mask possible defects in production due to longer drying times. Before the invention of artificial drying, the production of pasta in the north took longer and was more problematic due to the absence of predictable and stable microclimates. Hence, the ridges, which masked defects, became popular in the north. It also cooks differently. With its texture of “peaks” and “valleys,” ridged pasta exposes more surface to the water during cooking. It remains more “al dente” in its thick parts and releases more starch from the thinner parts. Hence, it gives the sensation of a firm pasta even when it’s a bit overcooked, that is, not quite al dente.