When Name Matters…

I have been running up and down the Valley all day long today. I finally made it home, but only after hopping on the wrong light rail and finding myself in an undiscovered side of the city. I was probably too into a new book a just started — ‘Delizia!: The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food’– to realize that i wasn’t going East, but West instead.

I would have taken the morning off and discovered a whole new part of Phoenix if it wasn’t for the 112 degrees weather and the 60% humidity.

So, i got home, hungry as never before probably caused by my decision to scratch off Nutella from my food pyramid. Thus, my breakfast now consists of a freshly baked croissant, a banana and a cappuccino. No more cutting bread, no more spreading Nutella. No more dipping the delicious sandwich in cold milk.


Lunch time. I opened the fridge. Capers, anchovies, San Marzano tomatoes. BINGO!

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca is a traditional Italian recipe, the ones that in an Italian family are eaten weekly. Made with simple ingredients (tomato sauce, black olives, capers, anchovies and parsley) Puttanesca sauce is probably one of my favorite dishes and the history of its name might have something to do with it.

You see it’s impossible to write about Pasta Puttanesca without sounding like a cast member of The Sopranos. In fact, 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.

But an article published by Annarita Cuomo in the Ischia daily, Il golfo, in February, 2005: “Il sugo ‘alla puttanesca’ nacque per caso ad Ischia, dall’estro culinario di Sandro Petti,”  which translates it means that “Puttanesca sauce was born by accident in Ischia, by Sandro Petti’s culinary flair.”

According to Cuomo, sugo alla puttanesca was invented in the 1950s by Ischian jet-setter Sandro Petti, co-owner of Ischia’s famed restaurant and nightspot, the “Rancio Fellone.”* When asked by his friends to cook for them one evening, Petti found his pantry bare. When he told his friends that he had nothing to cook for them, they responded by saying “just make us a ‘puttanata qualsiasi,’” in other words, “just make us whatever crap” you have.

“All I had was four tomatoes, a couple of capers, and some olives,” Petti told Cuomo. “So I used them to make the sauce for the spaghetti.” Petti then decided to include the dish on the menu at the Rancio Fellone but “spaghetti alla puttanata didn’t sound right. So I called it [spaghetti] alla puttanesca.”

However, the origin of sugo alla puttanesca probably lies some where between the isle of Ischia and the Amalfitan coast, where tomatoes, capers, olives, anchovies, and garlic are ingredients of choice. It’s clear that the dish emerged sometime after World War II when tomato-based sauces grew in popularity among the Italian middle class.

Either way, this is a delicious pasta and extremely easy to make.This quick supper dish should be salty, piquant and hot. The saltiness comes from anchovies and olives; the piquancy from the tomatoes and the effect of the capers; the heat from dried chilli flakes. Spaghetti puttanesca is not a genteel dish – it should in fact be a little coarse and the flavours should explode in the mouth. It is the best of all standby dishes, ready in minutes and made from ingredients you probably have.

Also keep in mind that i usually use whole peeled SanMarzano tomatoes in my pasta sauces, I crush them by hand and the resulting sauce is pretty chunky. However, if you don’t have those you can opt for a tomatoes puree.

Pasta Alla Puttanesca


serves 3/4 hungry people

  • 1 lb of spaghetti
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 6 cloves of garlic, sliced very thinly
  • 4 or 5 anchovy filets, cut into bits (if you use anchovies from a jar, this is the right amount; if, however, you use salted anchovies–which are far better, but much rarer–use less and rinse them well)
  • A pinch of red pepper flakes
1 Tbs
  • tomato paste
  • 3 Tbs capers, well drained
  • 1 35-oz can pureed or whole tomatoes (that you crush yourself)
  • Salt

1. Bring a big, big pot of water to a boil;

2. When the water reaches a boil, pour the olive oil into a big fat skillet with a lid (this is where all the pasta will end up, so make sure there’s enough room); drop the slivered garlic and the anchovies into the cold oil and bring the heat up to medium/high. When it starts sizzling stir it all around.

3. Be careful here, because the garlic can burn fast; push the garlic and anchovy mix to one half of the skillet, and in the other half shake in the red pepper flakes to taste (if you like it spicy, use a lot; if you like it mild, use a little) and the 1 Tbs of tomato paste. Stir the tomato paste around in its spot til it turns orange and then stir everything in the skillet all together. It should smell pretty fab. Again, make sure nothing’s burning (if anything looks like it’s getting past dark brown, dump the tomatoes in STAT!) but before you do add the tomatoes, drop in those capers. They’ll sizzle and pop; stir it all around and then add the tomatoes.

4. Bring the tomatoes to a boil, add a dash of salt (but not too much ’cause those anchovies are salty), then put the lid on the skillet and lower the heat to low, low, low so it simmers. (Lift the lid and stir it all around every 3 minutes or so; make sure it’s not bubbling too rapidly.)

5. Wait 5 minutes and then salt the boiling water; add your pasta and stir it around well so it doesn’t stick together.

6. 5 minutes later (so the sauce’s been cooking 10 minutes, and the pasta only 5) lift the lid off the skillet and stir that sauce all around. Taste it. Is it delicious? Season it now. Now let it cook with the lid off so it thickens for the remaining time it takes for the pasta to cook.

7. Taste the pasta as it gets close to being done: you want it to be al dente. When it is (meaning toothsome and not at all mushy) drain the pasta (I use a cooking spider) and drop all the pasta into the sauce. Turn up the heat and turn it round and round until the pasta is well coated and there aren’t pools of sauce at the bottom of the skillet (it should be pretty dry once the pasta’s coated.)

8. That’s it!  Serve it to your guests and tell them I’m your pimp and give me 30%. Enjoy!


Don’t be timid: this is a big, gutsy sauce and demands boldness in the cook. Yes, it’s a little sharp and hot and salty, and that is exactly how it should be. The best anchovies to use are the salt-packed variety, rinsed and patted dry. The bottled version is a little too mild, though it will, of course, do. You can use canned tomatoes – most Italians do. Go for Napolina. No Parmesan is necessary. It would be an overdose of salty notes.


One comment on “When Name Matters…

  1. Pingback: Montepulciano Obsession « CONViVIUM by Chef Gabriele Bertaccini

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This entry was posted on August 24, 2010 by in food & wine, italians, italy, recipe and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .
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