The History of Spaghetti and Marinara

A little while ago in the comments to this post a discussion ensued about what we do and don’t know about the past. The lacunae in our knowledge are not limited to the very distant past or even the merely distant past. There’s a lot we don’t know about things that happened relatively recently. I’ve always found the history of food preparation a fascinating subject so I thought I’d use the history of spaghetti with marinara sauce as an example.

Spaghetti with tomato sauce, also known as marinara, is a staple of southern Italian cookery or almost anywhere that southern Italians live, e.g. the United States, Brazil, Chile, etc. I don’t know what things are like now but when I lived in Germany what was served in restaurants as spaghetti and tomato sauce wouldn’t even have been disgorged from any self-respecting can. By comparison Beefaroni is haute cuisine. Perhaps things are better now.

However, spaghetti with marinara hasn’t always been a pillar of southern Italian cuisine. It’s actually a relative newcomer. Let’s start with the pasta.

Once upon a time every school child both in Italy and the United States learned that Marco Polo brought noodles back with him from China and that’s how the Italians got spaghetti. That’s almost certainly wrong. Oh, he might have brought them back but pasta very much along the lines of today’s pasta was being made and used in Sicily before Marco Polo was born. Besides, Chinese noodles are made very differently.

In the Book of Roger, the Tabula Rogeriana, written in 1154 in Arabic by Muhammad al-Idrisi, the court geographer to Roger II of Sicily, there’s a brief off-hand remark that the people of the Sicilian town of Trabia were making a form of pasta in long strands from hard, African-style wheat and exporting it all over the country. This actually sort of stands to reason. The Arabs had invaded and occupied Sicily for about a century beginning in the 10th century and the Arabs, too, make several different forms of pasta. That both the Italian pasta and the Arab are made from a style of wheat originating in Africa rather than European wheat renders that origin story even more likely.

Does long strand Italian-style pasta go back even farther in time? And who invented it? Nobody really knows.

There are a number of stories about the origins of tomato sauce or marinara, e.g. invented by sailors, made by sailors’ wives when they returned home, etc. but I suspect these are largely fanciful.

Since tomatoes are a product of the New World clearly they can’t have arrived in Italy (or Sicily) prior to the 15th century. The earliest recipe for tomato sauce that I’ve been able to find referenced is in Antonio Latini’s 1692 cookbook, Lo scalco alla moderna. The earliest recipe for tomato sauce with pasta was apparently in Roman chef Francesco Leonardi’s 1790 cookbook, L’Apicio moderno.

I haven’t been able to uncover the details of these early tomato sauce recipes. They don’t seem to be online either in the original or in translation. All of the early recipes I’ve been able to discover closely resemble Escoffier’s sauce tomate: a sauce employing a roux and containing salt pork and tomato puree and seasoned with bay leaf and thyme. This sounds more like the sauce called “tomato gravy” by Italian Americans than like marinara.

None of this really reveals where the idea for marinara actually came from. I’ve found a number of medieval recipes that closely resemble Escoffier’s sauce tomate, made with figs, prunes, or apricots instead of tomatoes. Could these be the antecedent of marinara?

I have read accounts that claimed that, prior to the invention of marinara sauce, Italians ate their pasta dry, i.e. without sauce. I’m skeptical. I think that aglio e olio (pasta prepared with a sauce of olive oil and garlic) goes back as far as pasta itself. We know that the ancient Greeks were dipping their bread in olive oil more than two millenia ago. Why would eating pasta with olive oil from a trencher be so far-fetched? Among the oldest recipes in the Western world is a Roman recipe for pesto—herbs pounded in a mortar with garlic and olive oil—which they apparently used to flavor their porridge. I’m betting that pasta al pesto is pretty old, too.

The earliest recipe for spaghetti and tomato sauce I’ve been able to discover is from 1839. That’s a mere flick of the eye ago—just a couple of generations (if you’re a grandson of John Tyler, that is).

The oldest cookbook actually in my possession, a 1924 American cookbook, contains a recipe for tomato sauce that’s very much like marinara (it’s the fourth tomato sauce recipe listed). In the commentary it characterizes the sauce as “good with Italian Paste”, i.e. pasta. It wasn’t until the 1920s that spaghetti and tomato sauce became commonplace in the United States.

So, in summary:

  • We don’t know when Italian-style pasta was invented or by whom. Sometime before 1100 and with Arab influence is a good guess.
  • We don’t know when marinara was invented or by whom. Certainly no earlier than the 16th century. Southern Italy in the 17th century is a good guess but it might be as late as the 18th century.
  • We don’t know what inspired the inventor of marinara. It’s possible that he or she was adapting a sauce that used some other kind of fruit. Or just had a lot of tomatoes sitting around.

Spaghetti and meatballs is Italian American and almost undoubtedly 20th century in origin.

16 comments… add one
  • sam Link

    “Among the oldest recipes in the Western world is a Roman recipe for pesto—herbs pounded in a mortar with garlic and olive oil—which they apparently used to flavor their porridge.”

    I can believe that. I hung out with Koreans for a while and found myself stirring kochi chang into my oatmeal. (It’s red chili paste and very hot.)

  • steve Link

    The Arab influence in so much of our food, culture and science is a recurrent theme that I find interesting.


  • Non-Western influence on our purportedly Western thought is a subject I’ve turned to here from time to time. Here’s an old post of mine, largely in response to the claims of how Western thought is derived from Greece and Rome.

  • Andy Link

    I don’t know what things are like now but when I lived in Germany what was served in restaurants as spaghetti and tomato sauce wouldn’t even have been disgorged from any self-respecting can.

    Reminds me of a “Tex-Mex” restaurant in Normandy I had the misfortune to dine in.

  • Oh dear. I’ve eaten pizza in Germany (the sauce was basically the same as the one on the spaghetti). I’ve also been to a Chinese restaurant in Germany. It was indescribable. And not in a good way.

    I went to a steak restaurant in Düsseldorf once. It was basically an Argentine restaurant. The steak was pretty tough but it served the only decent salad I had while in Germany.

  • Andy Link

    Good ethnic cuisine is one of the many great things about America!

    I had a “burrito” at the “tex-mex” place and it was some kind of stale flour tortilla with plain cooked white beans. That’s it.

    Didn’t have much choice in dining since that was the only open restaurant in the small town we stayed in that night.

  • Drew Link

    I don’t know, Dave. “you got your sauce, you throw in some beef, some meatballs, some wine..”

    I saw it in The Godfather…… it must be true.

    I’ve never been to Germany, although it looks like its in my future in the next few months, but everyone tells me it rivals England, Scotland and Ireland for cuisine. All, NOT in a good way.

  • michael reynolds Link

    The best pizza in Pontassieve, Italy is actually German Pizza. Not its official name, just what we called it. But they were somehow connected to Germany, very into beer and made some good pizza — better than the place we thought of as “pedophile pizza,” anyway.

  • Andy Link

    Goth pizza maybe? 😉

  • On the other hand, it is interesting which cuisines *do* travel well.
    I’ve heard it argued that the best Indian food is found in London, and the best kebabs are found in India.
    And American pizza is better than Italian.
    Italy does have the best ice cream though.

  • Ice cream is a fascinating subject on its own. I’m amazed at local variations. Italian gelato is more intensely flavored than our ice cream tends to be. I have never found ice cream richer than English ice cream anywhere. Almost inedible, at least to my tastes.

    Flavors vary tremendously as well.

    That’s true just within the United States. Nut ice creams tend to be more popular in the South, for example.

  • The cookbook Lo scalco is available in the original here:

    My 17th century culinary Italian is a little too poor to be able to identify the exact recipe in question, though ;P

  • Kese Link

    We need to learn about Natives because they were the first originators in America. Everyone dismisses the Native American culture. In America we never even attempt to learn about their culture without referring to Mexico. Maybe Native America have a tomato based sauce. If anyone knows any additional data then I would definitely like to learn.

  • Ancient Pasta
    The exact origins of Italian pasta are hotly contested. We know that the Chinese were making noodles as early as 5,000 BCE and some people believe that Chinese techniques were passed through ancient trade routes into the Mediterranean. Others believe that Italian pasta techniques are more native. The earliest possible evidence of Italian pasta dates to the Etruscan civilization. A 400 BCE Etruscan tomb in Tuscany contains reliefs of objects that some historians believe to be ancient pasta-making tools.

    Not everyone agrees, but it does seem that some form of pasta was being eaten in Italy by the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans produced millions of tons of grains per year, and drying it as pasta would have been a good way to store it. In fact, it is in this era that we find the first recorded use of the term macaroni, which in historic Italian culture was a term that described dried pasta of any shape.

    Still, there are issues. The Romans were fastidious record-keepers but left behind only a few written descriptions of pasta. Considering that we have many other Roman recipes, this is odd and may suggest that pasta was not extremely popular yet.

  • avvocato Link

    It’s unfortunate that you seem to state with certainty that spaghetti and meatballs are “Italian American and almost undoubtedly 20th century in origin”. Italy is not a homogeneous country there are over twenty cultural regions there. A version of spaghetti and meatballs arose in Abruzzo probably in the 18th century called chitarra alla Termana. Many immigrants to the USA came from Abruzzo and perhaps they brought this version of spaghetti and meatballs with them. Then it became Americanized. However, I haven’t found a lot of info about other Italian immigrants doing this in Argentina and Brazil. Although there appears to be a macarronada Italiana in Brazil – pasta and meatballs in tomato sauce. So there’s that …

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