The name alla Puttanesca literally translates to "in the style of prostitutes." It's fair to say that with a name like that, any dish would have rumors swirling around it. There are various accounts of how the pungent, savory and impactful combination of sauce and pasta became associated with sex workers. Two of the most common stories, both of which I have heard from different sources, have to do with the brothels of Naples. The first claims that the dish, a seeming mishmash of common Neapolitan ingredients, was so easy to throw together that the courtesans would make large batches of the pasta in between their appointments to feed their co-workers. I tend to like the camaraderie that this story showcases; it's like the firehouse chili of mid-century Neapolitan brothels. The alternative courtesan-based story asserts that the pungent combination of capers, olives, anchovies, garlic and chili cooking would lure men off the street and into their clutches.
Additional references to alla puttanesca occur between the 1960s and 70s. According to the Grande dizionario della lingua italiana, the first reference to pasta alla puttanesca was a 1961 novel by Raffael la Capria, Ferito a Morte (The Mortal Wound), in which "spaghetti alla puttanesca come li fanno a Siracusa" is mentioned. This "pasta alla puttanesca like they make it in Syracuse" indicates a Sicilian rather than a Campanian (or specifically Neapolitan) origin.
The timeline indicated by La Capria's novel finds support in a study conducted by the Unione Industriali Pastali Italiani (Italian Pasta Makers Union), which claims that the dish became popular in the 1960s. Further evidence of its rise in the 60s and 70s are seen in American restaurant reviews and Italian cookbooks. In 1972, New York Times restaurant critic Jean Hewitt wrote about the dish in her review of Trattoria da Alfredo, referencing the pungent combination of garlic, olive, anchovy and tomato. A few years later, author Jeanne Carola Francesconi, in her tome "La cucina napoletana" (1977), claims that the sauce was an invention of painter Eduardo Maria Colucci, who concocted the sauce as a variation on pasta alla marinara (sailor-style pasta).
The final story details the origin of the name being philological and linguistic, rather than having any connection with brothels or courtesans. The co-owner of a popular Ischian restaurant named Rancio Fellone created the dish with leftover items in the kitchen. Restaurant owner Sandro Petti was entertaining guests at his home one evening when they asked him to cook them a meal. He looked in his private pantry to find nothing but some tomatoes, capers, olives and pasta. A friend reportedly told him to make "puttanata qualsiasi," or "whatever crap." The dish was so good that Petti opted to add it to the menu, but the name spaghetti alla puttanata sounded clunky, as puttanata is a noun and not an adjective like puttanesca. In the end, Petti chose to substitute puttanesca, as the words are related and it makes far more sense in Italian linguistics.
Even though the recorded examples of puttanesca all come from the mid-20th century, it is entirely possible that the brothel stories are rooted in truth. Tomatoes have existed in Italy since the 16th century and over the centuries they become an important part of the culinary landscape. A Neapolitan proto-puttanesca may have come into being long before the recorded examples.
The origin of spaghetti alla puttanesca remains shrouded in mystery. The only concrete facts are the vagueness of its inception and the delicious flavors contained in the sauce. Luckily, the dish's origin doesn't affect how it looks, tastes and smells when put on a plate in front of a hungry diner.
- 1/2 pound dried spaghetti noodles
- Kosher salt
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for serving
- 6 medium garlic cloves, sliced
- 4-6 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
- 2-3 teaspoon red chili flakes
- 1/4 cup capers, drained and chopped
- 1/4 cup pitted black olives, chopped
- 1 cup whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand
- 1/4 cup of flat leaf Italian parsley, minced
- Grated zest of half a lemon
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil and add the spaghetti. Cook 1 minute less than package directions and drain, reserving 1/4 cup of the pasta water.
- While water is coming up to a boil, combine oil, chili flakes, garlic and anchovies in a medium skillet over medium heat. Keep stirring the mixture until the garlic is lightly golden.
- Add capers and olives to the pan, stirring to combine and heat until lightly pungent.
- Stir in the tomatoes and bring the whole mixture to a bare simmer.
- Add the drained pasta and 2 tablespoons of pasta water to the simmering sauce. Increase the heat and bring the sauce/pasta mixture to a vigorous simmer.
- Toss the sauce and pasta until the noodles are coated. Cut the heat and stir in another tablespoon of olive oil, the Pecorino Romano, lemon zest and parsley.
- Season generously with black pepper and add a scant amount of salt if absolutely necessary; the dish should be plenty salty due to the capers, olives and anchovies. Serve with additional Pecorino Romano.
NOTE: Feel free to substitute any dry pasta for the spaghetti and adapt cooking times accordingly. You can also reduce the amount of red chili flakes.
Recipe and Photo by Liam Fox
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