Pasta (or Spaghetti) alla Puttanesca, otherwise known as “Whore’s Spaghetti” (although you don’t have to tell the kids that), is a recipe with a slightly murky origin story. One of the more popular origin myths was that it was made up by a cook in a brothel who had very little to work with, so threw what she could find into a pot, cooked it, and served it with spaghetti.
That’s the story I always heard, anyway. Well, apparently, it’s not true.
Many signs point to the dish actually originating in the mid-20th Century. The first known reference to “spagehetti alla puttanesca” in Raffaele La Capria’s Ferito a Morte (Mortal Wound), a 1961 Italian novel.
in 2005, a restaurant owner named Sandro Petti claimed he invented the recipe for “Puttanesca” in the 1950’s.
According to Wikipedia (and several other sources):
“The moment of inspiration came, when near closing one evening, Petti found a group of customers sitting at one of his tables. Petti was low on ingredients and told them he didn’t have enough to make them a meal. They complained that it was late and they were hungry. “Facci una puttanata qualsiasi (Make any kind of garbage),” they insisted. In this usage, puttanata is an Italian noun meaning something worthless. It derives from the Italian word for whore, puttana.
At the time, Petti had nothing more than four tomatoes, two olives and some capers; the basic ingredients for the sugo. “So I used them to make the sauce for the spaghetti,” Petti told Cuomo.
Later, Petti included this dish on his menu as spaghetti alla puttanesca.”
Makes sense. Almost like the origin of Nachos.
The sauce on its own is called “sugo alla puttanesca” and the ingredients will differ slightly from region to region. In Napoli, they don’t use anchovies. While, in Lazio, they are used along with chile peppers. However it’s made, it’s a very popular dish throughout Italy.
Now, to the recipe:
The main reasons I like this dish are its ease of preparation and its taste. I’m an advocate of strong-tasting food and this sauce certainly fits that criteria.
And, yes. This dish is very efficacious.
As always, a few notes:
1. Whatever regional variations there are for this dish, the constants always are olives, capers, and tomatoes.
2. I prefer spaghetti with this dish. However, you can use linguine, pappardelle, or fettucine as well. You want to have a pasta that will stand up to the sauce.
3. Be sure to rinse the capers and olives before you add them to the sauce. Otherwise, the sauce will be like a salt lick.
4. Make sure you buy the small capers, not the larger caperberries.
5. Speaking of olives, save yourself some time and buy already pitted. Also, be sure to buy brine-cured and not oil-cured. Oil cured olives are meant to be eaten out-of-hand. They don’t really stand up to cooking.
6. You can use any combination of olives you like. I generally go with a mix of green and black. If you can find them in bulk, great. If you have to buy them in the jar, you’ll more than likely have to rinse off any seasoning included in the oil/brine in the jar.
7. If you would like to make this sauce vegan or just don’t like anchovies, omit them. For my part, though, the more the merrier.
2 tbsp. olive oil
4 – 6 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. red pepper flakes, more or less to taste
3 tbsp. capers, rinsed
6 anchovy fillets, chopped
2 c. pitted olives, very roughly chopped
1 28-oz can tomatoes
Salt & Pepper to taste, very judiciously used
1 lb. pasta
1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until the garlic just begins to brown.
2. Add the capers and cook for 2 – 3 minutes, stirring frequently.
3. Add the anchovies and cook another 2 – 3 minutes, again stirring frequently.
4. Add the olives. Cook another 3 – 5 minutes.
5. Add the tomatoes. Mix well. Let the sauce just come to a boil, then turn down the heat to medium-low. Cook the sauce for 20 – 25 minutes until it thickens slightly. Stir occasionally.
6. Meanwhile, make the pasta according to the package directions.
**At this point you can do 1 of 2 things. You can either save a cup of the pasta water just before you drain the pasta and use it if you decide to toss the pasta and sauce together (it will loosen the sauce so it will combine with the pasta more easily); or, simply drain the pasta and spoon the sauce over just as you get ready to serve.
In this example, I chose just to spoon some sauce over the pasta.
7. After 20 – 25 minutes, remove the sauce from the heat, taste for seasoning, combine with the pasta however you choose, and serve with some grated Parmigiano Reggiano.