Puttana is the Italian word for whore. Whenever Spaghetti alla Puttanesca were served in my household, as a child, I was always a bit miffed and slightly embarrassed for whatever double entendres must have been hiding in that name. It was not one of my favourite dishes but I always wondered where that moniker came from.
All grown-up, and no longer put off by olives and capers, I enjoyed the dish and never gave puttanesca’s origins a second thought. Until now. As I was getting ready to make spaghetti alla puttanesca once again, for a quick dinner, I wondered where on earth that name came from.
I was surprised to see that the Silver Spoon (Cucchiaio d’Argento), a sort of Italian food bible, the equivalent of the Joy of Cooking, does not have a recipe for it. Could that be? Was it out of prudishness that it was left out? It turns out the book that lives in pretty much every Italian kitchen was first published in 1950 and spaghetti alla puttanesca didn’t become popular until 60’s.
The apocryphal story goes that a restaurateur on the isle of Ischia was getting ready to close his establishment one Summer night, when a rowdy group of patrons came in, asking to be fed.
“But I don’t have anything left” he said
“Oh make us a puttanata qualunque” they replied.
Puttanata means bullshit or, in this case, any old crap.
Olives, capers and tomatoes happened to be all that was left in the kitchen and a new sauce was invented. From then on, the dish went on the restaurant menu as Spaghetti alla Puttanesca.
The basic sauce hasn’t changed much. The farther south you go, you will notice the addition of chopped garlic and anchovies. In Naples, though, olives and capers are still what goes in it – and that is the way I favour it. Anchovies can lend too much saltiness, especially when mixed with capers and olives. But let your palate dictate the ingredients.
If you are adding anchovies, instead of just rinsing them, try the Silver Spoon trick: let them soak in cold water for ten minutes to mitigate the saltiness.
When the pasta is ready, sit down, pretend you are soaking in the Neapolitan sun and dig in.
RECIPE – serves 4
400 g spaghetti
2 cans of chopped tomatoes (in Summer, use fresh tomatoes, blanched and peeled)
1 cup black olives, pitted and cut in half
1/4 cup capers
1 clove of garlic, peeled and smashed
2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil
Salt to taste
Pinch of sugar
2 or 3 anchovy fillets, soaked in cold water for 10 minutes (optional)
- Heat the olive oil in a large pan and add the garlic (if you want a more pungent sauce, chop the garlic). Before it starts to brown, add the olives, capers and anchovies if using. Cook for a few minutes, breaking up the anchovies with the back of a wooden spoon.
- Add the tomatoes, salt (if you are using the anchovies, go easy on the salt) and a pinch of sugar. Let cook on medium/low heat for about 20 minutes to half an hour, until you have a fairly thick sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning.
- Cook the spaghetti al dente, drain and add to the pan with the sauce. Cook for a minute until the sauce covers the pasta.
- Put on a cd of Neapolitan love songs and serve.