FOOD HISTORIAN FRANCINE SEGAN asserts that pasta emerged more than 5,000 years ago when an enterprising chef happened upon the now seemingly obvious idea of mushing flour and water together to create something that looked surprisingly like lasagna. “It breaks my heart to tell you this,” says Segan, invoking her own Italian heritage, “but the first to make those noodles might have been the ancient Greeks. Lots of references in ancient Greek writing—even in 3,000 B.C.—talk about layers that sound a lot like lasagna.”

Spaghetti took longer but appears to have taken shape in Italy. A popular misconception has Marco Polo introducing Italians to pasta when he returned from China in 1295, but Italy already had pasta by then. “In Sicily there is a town called Trabia,” wrote Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi in 1154. “In this town they made a food of flour in the form of strings.” He describes a true pasta industry: foodstuffs were first dried in the sun and then shipped by boat to other regions of Italy and even other countries.

A few hundred years later Leonardo da Vinci invented a machine that turned dough into edible strings. Technical glitches kept his pasta maker from achieving the mechanization of the industry he had hoped for. Still, the Italians succeeded in refining the art of pasta making, crafting more elaborate forms of mushed dough than anyone else.