While Marco Polo, a Venetian, is generally given credit for discovering noodles in China, recent research suggests that Italian pasta in all its glorious varieties was actually discovered in Rome nearly a century earlier, and quite by accident, by a remarkably unlikely epicurean named Julius Amplonius, with the able assistance of an invading barbarian named Klunk, The Great.
The momentous event occurred one afternoon when this portly patrician was dining at a chic restaurant just off the Roman Forum.
He was savoring a sip of red wine from Tuscany when a group of alarmed citizens came running by, screeching, “The barbarians are coming! The barbarians are coming!”
Amplonius had witnessed their arrival before, and by now he had made peace with the ancient wisdom, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may be out of food and wine.” It was by such Stoicism that the wise were able to witness the destruction of the Roman Empire while preserving a somewhat peaceful life. So, with a knowing smile, Julius simply raised his glass toward the fleeing crowd.
“What are you going to do, Julie, just sit there and eat?” a citizen who knew him quite well asked.
“Why not?” he replied. “I’m thirsty. Not to mention hungry.” With that, he indulged in another taste of the Tuscan red.
“You’re crazy!” a speeding friend called. “Run, Julie! Run!”
Just then a waitress who doubled as a temptress arrived with Julie’s lunch, which might be described as a plate of proto-pasta.
It consisted of a flat, round piece of dough that hung just a bit over the margins of the plate. It had a baked tomato sitting in the middle of it, with a single chunk of parmesan cheese next to it, and around both was a wreath of fragrant basil leaves.
“Enjoy your plano,” she said, putting down the dish, for that is the name the proto-pasta was known by.
“Thank you, gorgeous,” Julius told her, and gave her a pinch.
“Oh, you silly man,” she replied, and, looking about, seemed nervous. “Can you do me a favor, love, and close out your bill now?”
“No problem, you sex kitten,” he said, and reached for his purse. He took out enough Roman coinage to include a generous tip. “Keep the change,” he told her, and pursed his lips expectantly.
“Thank you, sweetie,” she said, and gave him a luscious but ever-so-brief kiss. Then she hurried off after the other fleeing citizens.
Julius calmly picked up a knife and fork and began to eat his proto-pasta.
Just as he cut off and savored his first bite, in rushed a huge, fur-covered barbarian, with a leather shield and the fateful sword with which he would help Julius discover pasta in many of the varieties we enjoy to this day, from lasagna to angel hair.
“Uh!” he grunted, and raised his sword.
Julius continued to dine. “Uh! Uh!” the barbarian raged, for the sound “uh” comprised much of the everyday range of his proto-language. To attract the attention of the unperturbed diner, he swung his sword in a circle and just happened to whack off the head of a statue of the great Augustus. It crashed to the marble floor.
Julius couldn’t help but notice the decapitation and, placing a leaf of basil on his tongue, said, “That wasn’t very nice. I kind of liked that statue.”
The barbarian could not, of course, understand a word. In an effort to establish a bit of good will, at least long enough to allow him to finish his meal, Julius held up his bottle of wine. “Like some vino?”
“Huh-Uh!” the barbarian managed to say.
“Suit yourself,” Julie told him. “Got a name?”
The barbarian stared at him without comprehension.
“Name?” Julius repeated, pointing to himself and then at the barbarian to illustrate the point of his question.
“Klunk,” the barbarian said.
“I might have guessed,” Julius commented.
“Klunk, The Great,” the barbarian continued, with some intellectual effort.
“Good for you,” Julius told him, and put out his hand. “I’m Julius, The Roman, also known as Julie, The Ample. Have a seat.”
“Huh-uh! I am conqueror – conqueror of Rome!” Klunk managed to say.
“Good for you!” Julie told him, and couldn’t resist asking the most challenging question. “Are you sure you can afford the upkeep? It’s an expensive city to maintain.”
“What is upkeep?” Klunk wanted to know.
“You’ll find out,” Julius advised him. “Now, come on. Have a seat. You’ve had a hard day.” Then he pointed to his dish and indicated a reluctant willingness to share some of his food. “And enjoy some plano.”
Klunk looked down at the plate, and asked, “What is plano?”
“You don’t know?” Julie inquired. “Where have you been?”
“Other side of the Alps,” Klunk managed to get out.
“Oh, no wonder,” Julie replied, and decided to educate the deprived soul. “See. This is a plate. Ever hear of a plate?”
“Instead of eating off the table, or the ground, you eat off of a plate.”
“Uh,” Klunk said, with apparent understanding.
“Now, on the plate we put a flat piece of boiled dough, called plano,” Julius continued, lifting up the edge with his fork to demonstrate. “Then we put all kinds of goodies on top of it. In this case, a tomato, a piece of cheese, and basil leaves.”
“Uh-huh.” Klunk acknowledged.
“All you do is take a knife and fork,” Julius explained, picking the utensils up slowly, so Klunk wouldn’t mistake his intentions and send his head rolling the way of the great Augustus’s marble head. “Then you cut off a piece.” He went through the process and took a bite. “Ah, delicious! Sure you won’t have any?”
“Uh-huh,” Klunk said, holding his ground, and repeated with some effort, “Plano.”
“Excellent!” Julius exclaimed. “You’ll be a true Roman in no time!”
“Klunk – a Roman?” the barbarian responded, visibly insulted, and raised his sword high above Julius. Then, unexpectedly, he brought the sword down on the plate and cut the plano right in half. “Now, what do you call it?” he was somehow able to ask.
Julius looked down at the two half-moons, and said, “I think I’ll call that one big agnolotti.” Then he took another sip of wine and smiled at Klunk.
Incensed at his inability to frighten Julius, he raised his sword again and whacked the plate three or four times. “What do you call it now?”
Julius examined it, and said, “This I’ll call lasagne.” With that, he took a bite and savored it.
Now furious, Klunk attacked the plate repeatedly, and demanded, “What do you call it now?”
Julius, despite his indifference to fate, was a bit shaken by all the clatter, and said, “I will name it linguine.”
Needless to say, Klunk swung his sword at the plate with an unprecedented volley of strokes. “What is it now?”
Julius examined the mishmash on his plate. By now, the plano was cut into thin strips, the tomato was diced, and the cheese was grated. After some deliberation, Julius announced, “You made what I will call spaghetti.” Still remaining remarkably calm, at least on the exterior, Julius took his fork and wound some spaghetti around it. Then he took a bite. “Delicious! And fun, too,” he told Klunk.
Enraged at his seemingly imperturbable true Roman, the barbarian now slashed at the contents of the plate until his arms were a veritable blur. Then, short of breath, he sighed, “Tell me what you name that.”
Julius looked closely at the mayhem in his plate. Now, the pasta was as thin as he could imagine it, and the tomato sauce, cheese, and basil were all mixed together. “It is so thin I think I will name it angel hair.”
Klunk became unexpectedly curious and bent toward Julius. “Angel hair? What for? You no angel. You fat Roman.”
Considering how finely the plano was now sliced, Julius could not imagine how much longer it could invite the attentions of Klunk and imagined that his own neck might well be the next object of the barbarian’s fury. Ever the clever Roman, he noticed that, as a result of Klunk’s exertion, his tummy was showing a bit.
Julie was, of course, also aware of the legendary weakness of the barbarian shield, as opposed to the metal shield that accounted for much of the impenetrability of the storied Roman phalanx.
So he pretended to move his knife toward the last remaining decent-size piece of tomato, saying, “No, my friend, I am not an angel.” With that, he quickly stabbed the somewhat exhausted Klunk, and added, “But you’re about to become one.”
Klunk looked down at his sudden, fatal wound with shock and fell to the ground with a thud. His head knocked the table and, if Julius’s hands weren’t so quick, the movement would have upset his glass of wine.
Leaning back and enjoying a sip, he said, “I think I’m gonna call all these things I discovered after my beautiful girlfriend, Pastina.” Then he rolled a bit on his fork and indulged in another mouthful, musing, “I just love Pastina.”
All the names Julius invented that day, with the undoubted help of the ill-fated barbarian Klunk, have come down through the centuries without alteration, except for the categorical appellation, which usage would eventually abbreviate to the more familiar word “pasta.”