Featured Recipe: Pasta alla Puttanesca

When you think of Italian pasta sauce, what do you see? Perhaps you picture warm, loving, Italian nonnas making pasta to welcome you into their kitchens.

The story of puttanesca is far more titillating.

Hot, lusty mamas made pasta to lure you into their…er let’s just say some other room. Puttanesca translates loosely (no pun intended) to “prostitute”

The ladies in question were known as “squillo,” a word that describes the ringing of a telephone and a clever reference to call girl. Until 1958, brothels were legal in Italy. They weren’t permitted to sell food and drink, but prostitution was fair game. So when the “squillo” created puttanesca sauce, that was the only crime they committed.

“Everything You See, I Owe to Pasta” -Sophia Loren

Italy in the fifties was not big on feminism. Machismo reigned and bombshell celebrities like Sophia Loren flaunted sex appeal like a badge of honor. A modern day pasta sauce created by and named after ladies of the night could hardly seem scandalous in such an environment.

The folklore of puttanesca varies depending on who you talk to. Some claim these “culinary” pioneers were from Rome. Others insist Naples. Either way, the women who created puttanesca sauce were “professionals” working the late shift. They concocted a briny, spicy aphrodisiac of a meal befitting the day.

With a wink and a nudge, one story claims the squillo put this particular recipe together because it was quick and simple to make in between clients. If you’ve ever had puttanesca before, you’re familiar with its pungent fragrance. The more believable story is that the ladies used this particular combination of ingredients – anchovies, olives and capers – to lure their clients with its heady aroma.

You Probably Have All of the Ingredients in Your Pantry…or You Should

Puttanesca is a pasta you can make with just the things in your pantry. That is if your pantry belongs to a feisty Italian lady. Luckily, you can easily mimic her pantry without adopting the rest of the persona. One taste of the salty, subtle fish flavor mixed with a very light and spicy tomato sauce, and you’ll understand just how tempting puttanesca is.

The classic ingredients work so well together that assembling them into my own recipe was intuitive. I knew very little about the dish except that it’s tomato based and features olives, capers and anchovies. The first time I made it, I had every necessary ingredient available right down to a half full container of olives in that needed to be used up before they went bad. Recipe development was one part gut and one part how much of this or that do I have.

You’ll Love Knowing You Can Make This Better Than a Restaurant

The ingredients are easy to keep on hand. Capers and anchovies both come in small glass jars that I highly recommend for stocking your pantry. Even the tomatoes can be kept at the ready with a good brand of canned, whole, peeled tomatoes. The sauce comes together so quickly.  It’s perfect to make on a work night as its origin would suggest. After all, the ladies hardly had time for a complicated meal when they were working.

If you’ve never had it before, let yours be the first version you try. I have faith in your abilities to ruin yourself for all Italian restaurants everywhere. Plus, that slightly smug feeling of ‘ I can make this better’ is fun every now and then.