Spaghetti alla Putanesca

Spaghetti alla Putanesca: a Storied Dish


Spaghetti alla Putanesca, a deliciously savory dish of alleged ill repute, reportedly emerged from the war-ravaged brothels of Naples in the late 1940s. The name means spaghetti in the style of, well, ladies of negotiable virtue. The dish can be prepared quickly, for example in the short time between clients. It needs only non-refrigerated ingredients, as might have been found in your typical disorderly Neapolitan brothel kitchen’s pantry – spaghetti, canned tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, anchovies, olives, capers, dry hot pepper. The illicit-sounding dish became popular by the 1950s. Its catchy title inevitably brought out nudge-nudge, wink-wink attempts at wit: “fast,” “easy,” “hot.”


Unfortunately, food historians (and they exist!) have focused on a flamboyant cook and nightclub host on the nearby island of Ischia, not Naples working girls, as the likely creator. Yet, the lingering name suited the Italian sense of culinary humor.


To make Spaghetti alla Putanesca, the trick -- a risky word here -- is having the sauce ready before boiling the pasta. Cheese is not traditionally used. Dry to off-dry white wines, not red wines, are recommended for pairing because of the anchovies and hot peppers.


The recipe serves six as a starter course, Italian style, or four as the main course.

4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 (2-ounce) can anchovy fillets (save oil), coarsely chopped
24 Greek Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
2 tablespoons capers, drained
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
6 tablespoons combined oil from anchovies plus olive oil as needed
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
Salt, if needed
3/4 pound (12 ounces) spaghetti

Boil large pot of water for the pasta, and prepare the ingredients.

In large frying pan gently fry garlic in the oil 10 seconds, stirring. Add anchovies and hot pepper. Fry 1/2 minute. Add tomatoes, olives, and capers. Raise heat and boil, stirring, 2 minutes. Taste, and add salt if needed. Remove from heat. Stir in parsley.

Add 1 tablespoon salt to the boiling water. Add pasta, stirring immediately so it doesn’t stick together. As pasta softens, bite a piece to test. When just tender, drain in colander, but do not rinse. In large serving bowl, toss pasta with 3/4 of the sauce. Spoon remainder of the sauce on top.

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