I just finished a book about Venice, which included, of course, the story of Marco Polo, that most famous of all Venetians. As enduring as is his fame, the misconception of his role in the history of pasta is almost as so.
Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant who lived in the 1200s and traveled with his father and uncle from Venice to China and famously wrote about it, definitely did not introduce pasta to Italy from the Chinese as popular mythology once led us to believe. This story was actually popularized in the early 1930s by the editors of the Macaroni Journal, a newsletter of the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association in America, in an effort to create an intriguing fable that might help sell their products. The Chinese cultivated wheat, milled it into flour and mixed it with water to create edible forms ”several centuries before pastas” were first mentioned in Sicily in the 1100s. This citation, though, was at least a hundred years before Marco Polo was born.
The Italian development of pasta was later than the Chinese, but not influenced by them. In the Chinese pasta tradition, it is made with soft wheat flour, and typically served in broth with vegetables, pieces of meat, or seafood. The most Italian style of pasta, the dried and stored pasta secca tradition of the south, is usually made with the hard durum wheat flour then dried so that it could be used in the future. Though the Italians were the not first to create pasta, they were the ones who developed the techniques of shaping, cooking and storing it as we know today, which has long been common in Italy. And, it is the main focus of the dish, not just a participant like it is in other cuisines.