What better for the first Friday of Lent than a sauce whose name translates to the “harlot’s pasta.” So go the stories that ladies of the evening made this fragrant sauce in the kitchens of their brothels to attract passers by like odiferous sirens. The cheap ingredients could be quickly cooked wasting neither time nor money and gentlemen callers would be more apt to wait if they were being fed. Other stories say that the pasta was valued for its simplicity and speed by married women who wanted to hurry off to someone other than their husband. Some killjoys say that the name comes from the spiciness of the sauce.
The unfortunate truth is more likely that Sandro Petti didn’t have much in his kitchen one night when his friends asked him to throw something together. The dish later landed on his restaurant’s, Rancio Fellone, menu. As the story goes his friends asked him to make “puttanata” or in other words, any old “bullshit.” “Puttanesca” looked better on the menu than “Puttanata.” There’s a pretty good post on the non whorish origins here. Most are in agreement that the sauce didn’t appear until after World War II.
I have two recipes for Spaghetti alla Puttanesca: one that I recognize as being authentic and elegant and fresh and one that I just like better sometimes.
First the authentic. I saw this on an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations (If you are a fan of the show, read this). As is usually the case with show, they don’t give recipes but you can piece it together what is being done by watching the chef’s and looking at the finished product.
6 chopped and seeded roma tomatoes
1 1/2 good hands full kalamata olive, pitted
2 tablespoons capers
1 hand full chopped Italian parsley
8 fresh white anchovy filets
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more to taste
3 cloves chopped garlic
1 lb. spaghetti
Start by heating oil in a pan, add the garlic and let cook till aromatic (do not brown!). Add the olives, red pepper, and parsley and cook, stirring every so often for two or three minutes and then add the tomatoes and capers. When the tomatoes begin to give up their juices, add the anchovies and cook for five minutes. Meanwhile, salt and boil water and cook the spaghetti until al dente. Taste the sauce and correct for salt and pepper. Stir in the pasta and coat with the sauce. Serve immediately with parmigiano reggiano or pecorino romano.
The second version is one we have been making for years. We started with the version in Italy: The Beautiful Cookbook and adapted it to our tastes. I can make this in my sleep at this point.
2 28 oz. cans whole tomatoes with their juices
8 whole cloves of garlic
6-8 ounces of pitted kalamata olives
3 oz. nonpariel capers, drained
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes, or more to taste (use more!)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
2 hands full chopped Italian parsley
2 2 oz. cans anchovies packed in oil, minced into mush
First put the tomatoes and their juices in a bowl and tear up roughly. Next pour a few glugs of olive oil into a large sauce pan (Dutch ovens rule) and add the whole cloves of garlic over high heat. When the garlic starts to color, add the tomatoes and tomato juice, olives, capers, red pepper flakes, and oregano. When the sauce starts to bubble, reduce heat and let simmer for ten minutes, stirring frequently. Add the parsley and anchovies. When the anchovies have fully dissolved in the sauce, another ten minutes generally, serve over spaghetti cooked in boiling salted water. You can check for salt at the end if you want to, but between the capers, olives, and anchovies the job should be pretty well done. Also remember that parmigiano reggiano, which you should be serving this with, will carry some salt too. When you are serving, take care to make sure everyone gets at least one clove of garlic in their dish.
Happy Lent. Or somber Lent. I’m not sure what you are supposed to say. Enjoy your meat free Friday. Hopefully this will make it less of a sacrifice. I’m not sure if that is appropriate either. Consider the theological obligations over this dish with a glass of Barbera, or Nebbiolo.