One of the ultimate “love it” or “loathe it” meals, Spaghetti alla Puttanesca is a dish accustomed to evoking passionate reactions in all those who dare eat it! Robust, seductive and “easy”, Spaghetti alla Puttanesca appropriately translates into English as “Spaghetti of the Whore”.
In spite of its alarmingly rowdy name, puttanesca has probably less to do with salacious ladies of the night and perhaps more to do with its “trashy” ingredients. The dish is alleged to have been created by a restaurant owner in the 1950’s to appease some rowdy late-night patrons. As closing time was upon them, the patrons supposedly demanded the owner quickly whip them up something to eat, insisting that it could be made with “any kind of garbage (puttanata)”. With just some leftover tomatoes, capers and olives, the obliging owner threw together a simple pasta sauce that would become the classic dish we now all know and love…or loathe. At least that’s the PG version of puttanesca’s origins and is perhaps nothing more than Wikiepdia-lore – we will never really know for sure.
I, however, prefer to believe in puttanesca’s seedier origin-story as it speaks to the heart of the unrefined character of the dish. This is a pasta sauce born out of back alleys of Sicily, ordered with harsh whispers and eaten with the appetite of the insatiable and unsophisticated. This is a dish that is as unapologetic and unrepentant as the women who reputably ate it. Puttanesca is a sauce that holds nothing back – there are few pasta sauces that pack this much of a punch with each mouthful. Coarse, salty and bordering on the uncouth, to my mind Spaghetti alla Puttanesca is indeed a dish that is aptly named!
Aside from its history, the one other point of contention with regards to puttanesca are anchovies! Whilst I cannot imagine puttanesca without them, I must point out that the addition of these divisive little fish to the sauce isn’t always the norm. In fact, anchovies were a later inclusion to the dish and are still only used depending on regional tastes and variations. Outside of Italy though, anchovies are synonymous with puttanesca and I see absolutely no reason to advocate otherwise.
Irrespective of which version of Spaghetti alla Puttanesca’s history you chose to believe, or whether you want it with anchovies or not, the next time you order it at a restaurant just bear in mind what you are really saying to the waitron. Depending on the neighbourhood you are in, when you utter the words, “I’ll have the puttanesca, please”, you might get more than you bargained for!
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Spaghetti alla Puttanesca: Serves 2
- 200g spaghetti
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 10 cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1/4 tsp. crushed dried chilli flakes
- 1 garlic clove, very thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp. capers, drained and chopped
- 60g black olives, pitted and roughly chopped
- 4 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
- 1 cup passata (or a tin of chopped tomatoes, passed through a fine sieve)
- 1/4 tsp. white sugar
- Chopped flat-leafed Parsley
- Grated pecorino
- Black pepper
- Heat the olive oil in a wide frying pan until very hot
- Add the cherry tomatoes, garlic and chilli
- Sauté for a minute, being careful not to burn the garlic
- Add the chopped capers, olives and anchovy
- Reduce the heat slightly and sauté for another minute
- Add the passata and sugar, bring to a lively simmer
- Cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until the sauce thickens and starts to look glossy
- Boil your pasta until al dente and the drain
- Add the pasta to the cooked sauce and stir to combine
Garnish with: chopped flat-leafed Parsley, freshly grated pecorino and a couple of cracks of black pepper