There are any number of stories as to how ‘Spaghetti alla puttanesca’ came about (See here). The one I like the most is Chef Sandro Petti, from the Italian Island of Ischia, was low on ingredients and told a group of late night revellers he didn’t have enough to make them a meal. They complained that it was late and they were hungry. "Facci una puttanata qualsiasi" or “make any kind of garbage,” they insisted. In this usage, puttanata is a noun meaning something worthless or something easy to prepare even though it derives from the Italian word for whore, puttana. The dish is more likely to have come from Sicily or Naples and is traditionally referred to as ‘whores pasta’.
The 1971 edition of the Cucchiaio d’argento (The Silver Spoon, a cookbook) has no recipe for puttanesca, but two which are very similar. The Neapolitan Spaghetti alla partenopea, in which the anchovies are added towards the end of cooking and is flavoured with generous quantities of oregano, and Sicillian spaghetti alla siciliana which adds green peppers to the ingredients.
Most of the various stories centre around the same theme:
Pasta Putanesca means “Harlot’s Pasta”. It was originally made by ladies of the night in Italy, and placed in the window to attract customers.
Pasta alla Puttanesca translates in Italian to: "Pasta the way a whore would make it." The reasons are often disputed: some say it’s because this is the pasta whores would make in Italy to lure in potential customers, others say it’s because the strong smell–anchovies, garlic–made the pasta itself "smell like a whore."
The story goes that “puttanesca” means “whore’s”, named in honour of the smarter prostitutes who’d make a version of this pasta, the aroma of which would draw more gentlemen visitors to their bordello.
A more likely version is that one must consider when brothels in Italy were state owned. They were known as case chiuse or ‘closed houses’ because the shutters had to be kept permanently closed to avoid offending the neighbours or passersby. These "civil servants" were allotted one day per week for shopping, and their time was obviously valuable. As such, their specialty became a sauce made quickly from odds and ends in the larder.
The simple traditional recipe is: Chopped garlic, diced onions and anchovies which are sautéed in olive oil. Chopped chilli peppers, black olives, capers and diced tomatoes are added along with salt and black pepper to taste. The cook then reduces this mixture by simmering anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes depending on the amount of sauce being prepared. Once cooked, it is poured over spaghetti cooked al dente. The final touch is a topping of parsley. So here is my version:
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 onion—finely chopped
- 6-8 cloves garlic—finely chopped
- 8 anchovy fillets—chopped
- 1 small red chilli—deseeded and finely chopped
- 2 tspn capers—rinsed and drained
- 12 pitted black olives—quartered
- 420g canned tomatoes—chopped
- 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh Italian Parsley
- 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh Basil
- half tspn Oregano
- half tspn sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 200g of pasta of your choice, traditionally its done with spaghetti
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Heat the oil in a good size frying pan. Add the anchovies, garlic, onion, chilli, olives, capers, oregano and tomatoes. Simmer for 30 minutes. Add the chopped parsley and basil, saving some parsley for decoration once served. Simmer for another couple of minutes.
Meanwhile cook your preferred pasta to “al dente”. Drain pasta and spoon in half the puttanesca sauce and toss until evenly coated. Spoon the pasta on to a platter and pour remaining sauce on top. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and parmesan cheese. Serve with warm bread and a quality red wine.