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It happened one Summer night – Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Posted in Food, and Food & Entertaining

Isle of Ischia
Isle of Ischia

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.

Spaghetti Puttanesca

RECIPE – serves 4

Ingredients

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)

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Cook the spaghetti al dente, drain and add to the pan with the sauce. Cook for a minute until the sauce covers the pasta.
  4. Put on a cd of Neapolitan love songs and serve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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17 Comments

  1. Nice story and recipe. There are various theories why it’s called puttanesca, and I have my own which is probably not true. There are many versions of puttanesca around. I have even seen versions with tuna or oregano. I have always defined puttanesca as ‘whatever I have in my pantry’. Hence my theory, puttanesca is pasta that ‘does it’ with many ingredients, just like a whore ‘does it’ with many men 🙂

    October 11, 2013
    |Reply
    • I love all these different theories about the origins. Yours is definitely the most risque – makes sense too.

      October 11, 2013
      |Reply
  2. Ah Ischia. Island of fishers – Mr Ripley’s Hotel Miramare – fresh spada – German holiday makers – I wonder if those long ago diners were calling for puttana pesce or even, at a stretch, pesche.

    October 10, 2013
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    • Who knows if the story is true. If it is, your interpretation would add a nice touch.

      October 11, 2013
      |Reply
  3. […] to confess, I never heard of the woman before. But I was very taken by a post on Campari and Sofa in praise of this much loved cook. And bemoaning her […]

    October 10, 2013
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  4. Am I wrong or your writing on Italy is particularly fertile these days? Are you having a nostalgia moment? Apart from teasing, thank you for the puttanesca recipe, I never had it. (as I am a Silver Spoon addict). xx

    October 10, 2013
    |Reply
    • I think because my mom was here, I am sticking to a lot of Italian cooking. Although I did make tacos last Sunday for ethnic variety! No, am not nostalgic. Do you have the English or Italian Silver Spoon? I have it in English – isn’t it sad?

      October 10, 2013
      |Reply
      • I have it in Italian, asked and received the first Xmas I was married (from my parents). I love the 50s mood of the whole book and all the “international” recipes they have, especially the desserts (with all sorts of semifreddi etc.) which really make me feel like a spoiled housewife holidaying in Portofino in 1956, smoking a cigarette while going through my dinner menu, rolls in my fake-blond hair 🙂

        October 10, 2013
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  5. This is one of my favorite dishes! I tried to convince my sister to try it when we were in St. Martin visiting our parents but she is not a fan of olives or anchovies. So sad.

    It’s starting to get cooler here. Now I can start using my stove again. I think I need to make some Puttanesca this weekend.

    October 10, 2013
    |Reply
    • Starting to get cooler here too. Will it last? It rained all day yesterday and it was wonderful. Back to sun today

      October 10, 2013
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  6. Thanks to your last saucy recipe-Margaret Hazan`s excellent and delicious tomato sauce- I am sorted for dinner today. But will be trying this Puttanesca very soon. The hardest part will probably be imagining Italian warmth in my current Irish chill zone.

    October 10, 2013
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      • Aha! which explains why we`re a nation of alcoholics…

        October 10, 2013
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  7. Now that you have discovered your inner housewife!

    October 10, 2013
    |Reply
  8. I just made a delicious creation of a spaghetti sauce for dinner! Will need to try this one next time.

    October 9, 2013
    |Reply

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