The Jezebel’s Delight: Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

It’s true. The Oxford English Dictionary even says so. Puttanesca is the female derivative of puttanesco, which means “of, relating to, or characteristic of a prostitute.” Puttan, a word bandied about during my childhood in reference to some of our trashier relatives and neighbors, translates to prostitute. Puttanesca would be like calling something “whorish.”

Of course, puttan does not always mean prostitute. Like bugger in the United Kingdom or shit here in the States, my countryman use puttan as all-purpose vulgar slang to express frustration (The Father used to yell va fa napoli a lot, which is literally translated to “go to Naples” but is more of a forceful outburst than anything). Drop a dish and break it? You might say, “Shit.” The Father might say, “Va fa napoli.”

Legend has multiple origins for this sauce:

None of these are true. It turns out that the sauce has more to do with the slang translation of puttan. I go back to Dr. Jeremy Parzen, Ph.D. at Do Bianchi:

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“Puttanesca sauce was born by accident in Ischia, the child of Sandro Petti’s culinary flair.”

According to Cuomo, sugo alla puttanesca was invented in the 1950s by Ischian jet-setter Sandro Petti, co-owner of Ischia’s famed restaurant and nightspot, the “Rancio Fellone.”* When asked by his friends to cook for them one evening, Petti found his pantry bare. When he told his friends that he had nothing to cook for them, they responded by saying “just make us a ‘puttanata qualsiasi,’” in other words, “just make us whatever crap” you have (see my original post for a definition of the Italian puttanata).

“All I had was four tomatoes, a couple of capers, and some olives,” Petti told Cuomo. “So I used them to make the sauce for the spaghetti.” Petti then decided to include the dish on the menu at the Rancio Fellone but “spaghetti alla puttanata didn’t sound right. So I called it [spaghetti] alla puttanesca.”

It’s actually a little more complicated than that, and Dr. Parzen goes deeper, but essentially we are talking about a sauce with a bunch of sh…stuff in it.

My version below is a metarecipe, or a combination of about 10 or 12 puttanesca sauces from various cookbooks and websites. The result is a wonderfully flavorful, salty sauce that hangs on each piece of pasta.

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WHAT WORKED: Anchovies. Yes, they look disgusting. Yes, they taste disgusting. But, you know what happens when you add heat directly to anchovies? They dissolve oily, salty love.

WHAT DIDN’T: Next time, I would go with whole peeled tomatoes that I crushed by hand rather than a can of crushed tomatoes.

EASE OF PREPARATION: Medium, as you have to babysit the anchovies so you don’t end up with burned oil. 

BEST FOR: A quick dinner.

SERVE WITH: A medium-bodied red, like a malbec.

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Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

By Jared Paventi

  • Kosher salt
  • 1 lb. spaghetti
  • 1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 oz. oil-packed anchovies
  • 3 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes in juice, crushed by hand
  • large pinch herbes de provence
  • freshly ground black pepper 
  • 4 oz. black olives, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. nonpareil capers, drained 
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon 
  • Pecorino-Romano cheese, grated

Set a large pot of water on your stove over high heat and bring it to boil. Add about 2 to 3 tbsp. of kosher salt to the water and cook the pasta per the directions on the box to al dente. Reserve a cup of pasta cooking liquid.

In the meantime, add olive oil to a large saucepan over high heat. When it shimmers, add the onion and reduce heat to medium. Stir occasionally until softened, about 5 to 7 minutes, adjusting heat to prevent the onions from browning. Add the anchovies and oil from the tin, followed by the garlic, and stir. Cook 3 to 4 minutes, until the anchovies have broken down into oil.

Add the tomato paste and stir in to coat with oil. Cook 1 to 2 minutes until it begins to thin out, then add the tomatoes, herbes de provence, salt and pepper, olives and capers. Increase heat to medium-high until it bubbles, then reduce heat to medium. Cook 20 minutes, using the pasta water to thin the sauce out at the end if you need/like.

Add the pasta to a bowl with the sauce. Add the grated lemon zest and toss. Serve with crusty bread and grated cheese.

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