Puttanesca: Whore’s spaghetti!
If you speak or understand Italian you’ll know that Spaghetti alla Puttanesca literally means prostitute’s spaghetti! ‘Puttana’ in Italian means prostitute or whore!
Like so many other Italian dishes there are various opinions on how this pasta dish got its name! Some believe that it was a dish made by a brothel owner in the Spanish quarter (red light district) of Naples which he either offered to his patrons or used to entice customers through the door with the spicy, pungent aroma produced by its ingredients. Others believe that this was the easiest thing prostitutes could prepare between customers because the low cost, easily stored ingredients required little shopping or preparation.
More believable, perhaps, is the belief that this very popular sauce originated in Ischia around 1950, where it was created randomly by Sandro Petti, the co-owner of the restaurant Rangio Felon. The story goes that some customers arrived late to eat and because the restaurant had run out of many fresh ingredients they asked Petti to prepare ‘una puttanata qualsiasi’ which literally translates as ‘a whore’s any’ but means any rubbish/ garbage. So Petti created a dish with what he had, or rather had left in the kitchen. The resulting pasta dish was liked so much by the customers that Petti put it on the restaurant menu calling it ‘spaghetti all puttanesca’.
The two main Italian versions of Puttanesca
Whatever its origins, puttanesca is a very popular pasta dish. The original Neapolitan ingredients are simple but flavourful; fresh peeled tomatoes, capers, black olives, garlic, oregano and sometimes peperoncino. The original recipe from Naples doesn’t actually include anchovies. That version, apparently, comes from Lazio where they replace the oregano with parsley and anchovies and sometimes use green instead of black olives.
Italians love to talk about food and they are very vocal when it comes to discussing the correct ingredients for traditional dishes. Because there are regional versions of many popular dishes, they can often be heard disputing among themselves what is the correct way to cook something! However when it comes to Puttanesca there are a couple of strict rules Italians all agree on, no parmesan if you make it with anchovies (Italians don’t use cheese on seafood pasta dishes) and no basil!
Authentic or not authentic that is the question!
I recently came across a recipe on Jamie Oliver’s website for puttanesca. Jamie’s version comes from Gennarro Contaldo, a well-known Italian chef who has lived and worked in UK since 1969. This recipe is quite different from those found and eaten in Italy and includes basil and parmesan and has no capers! I spent an amusing few minutes reading the comment section under the recipe in which a number of outraged Italians had stated their total disagreement to the recipe, especially since Jamie Oliver captioned it as being authentic!
The recipe here is that from Lazio as I love the taste of anchovies. However capers are a must and to caper or not to caper isn’t a question of choice if you are planning to make ‘authentic’ puttanesca. For the Italians, if it doesn’t have capers, it isn’t puttanesca, so call it something else!
- 400grms dried spaghetti
- extra-virgin olive oil
- 3-4 medium cloves garlic, thinly sliced or finely chopped
- 6 to 8 anchovy fillets, finely chopped (Italians prefer salted anchovies but you can also use those in oil)
- Peperoncino flakes or 1 chopped pepperoncino (Italian chilli pepper)
- A large tablespoon of capers, drained and chopped. (Italians also prefer salted capers. If you use these rinse them under water before using them)
- 100 grms pitted black or green olives (I used taggiasca olives)
- 400 grms whole peeled, deseeded and chopped tomatoes, preferably San Marzano or datterini.
- Small handful minced fresh parsley leaves
- Freshly ground black pepper.
- Start boiling salted water for the spaghetti.
- Meanwhile heat some olive oil in a frying pan large enough to hold the cooked pasta later.
- Add the garlic, anchovies, and red pepper flakes.
- Cook over medium heat until garlic is very lightly golden, about 5 minutes. (Adjust heat as necessary to keep it gently sizzling.)
- Add capers, a bit of parsley and olives and stir to combine.
- Add the tomatoes, stir and bring to a bare simmer.
- Cook pasta to just under al dente (about 1 minute less than the package recommends).
- Drain pasta reserving 1 cup of the cooking water.
- Add drained pasta to sauce.
- Add a few tablespoons of pasta water to sauce and increase heat to bring pasta and sauce to a vigorous simmer.
- Cook, stirring and shaking the pan and adding more pasta water as necessary to keep sauce a little liquidy until pasta is perfectly al dente,
- Sprinkle with some more parsley.
- Season with salt and pepper as required.
- Serve immediately.
- Although traditionally served with spaghetti, all puttanesca can be served with other long pasta such as fettucine.
- The quantity of the individual ingredients can be altered depending on one's taste. Some people prefer less olives, capers or anchovies.