If you’ve heard a story about puttanesca it is likely that it translates as whore’s spaghetti – that it was born in the brothels of Naples’ Spanish quarters, a favourite of the prostitutes who worked there, for its quick, cheap and easy nature. But – ah, isn’t it always the way? – the truth is perhaps a little more prosaic. The word puttanesca is indeed derived from the Italian for prostitute (‘puttana’), but the same word is also used as a catch-all profanity, an Italian ‘crap’. In this vein, the dish would come to mean ‘any old crap’ pasta. This makes sense, because puttanesca is a true store-cupboard dish, made almost entirely from tins and jars and dried pasta (entirely if you forgo the parsley). It also chimes with the alternative origin story that the dish was created in the 1950’s by Sandro Petti, proprietor of the Ischian restaurant Rancio Fellone: when asked by some late night customers for sustenance, he protested that he didn’t have enough ingredients. 'Facci una puttanata qualsiasi,' they said. So that’s what he did, using tomatoes and olives and capers.
Either way, versions of the dish certainly existed before the middle of the twentieth century, and can be found in cookbooks under different names. In 1844, a similar recipe under the title ‘vermicelli all'oglio con olive capperi ed alici salse’ appears in Cucina teorico-pratica, and in 1931, ‘maccheroni marinara’ is listed as a Neapolitan specialty in a 1931 edition of Guida gastronomica d'Italia, but bears a striking resemblance to the modern puttanesca. But it wasn’t until the 1960’s that puttanesca was used as a dish name – where it appeared not in a cookbook, but in a novel: Raffaele La Capria’s Ferito a Morte (Mortal Wound).
Whichever origin story you favour, the ad hoc nature of the dish belies its harmony: the richness of the tomatoes provides the perfect canvas for the salty depth of olives, the briney pop of capers, and the hum of chilli. It tastes like a far more complicated dish, one that has been simmered for hours, rather than a matter of minutes.
Anchovies aren’t essential to a classic Naples puttanesca, but are found in the nearby Lazio iteration of the dish. While the presence of anchovies can be off-putting in an ingredient list if you’re not a fan of tinned fish, they’re not imparting anything fishy here, just a surprisingly sweet depth to the sauce, which they’ll dissolve into as they cook. With or without the anchovies, the olives and capers will ensure this is a salty dish, so go easy on the seasoning.
Makes: Enough for 4
Takes: 25 minutes
Bakes: No time at all
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely sliced
½ teaspoon dried chilli flakes
400g tinned tomato
100g black olives, halved
2 tbsp capers in brine
A fistful of parsley, finely chopped
- First, heat the olive oil in a large, shallow pan over a medium heat. Gently fry the sliced garlic and anchovies until the garlic has softened but not browned. Add the dried chilli flakes and the tinned tomatoes, breaking up the whole tomatoes with a spoon or spatula. Bring up to a simmer, give the whole thing a good stir, lower the heat and gently bubble the sauce for 15 minutes.
- When the sauce has five minutes to go, start to cook the spaghetti according to the packet instructions. Stir the olives and capers through the sauce.
- When the spaghetti is ready, drain it and toss the spaghetti into the sauce, twisting it to coat and distribute the pasta through the sauce. Use tongs to serve the spaghetti onto plates, and top with chopped pasley.