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The story of a saucy Italian classic

The deliciously rude spaghetti puttanesca

Nothing that goes into it needs to be fresh, and it takes just minutes to prepare

Nothing that goes into it needs to be fresh, and it takes just minutes to prepare

Josie Delap | April 5th 2019

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but under a different alias would spaghetti puttanesca retain its earthy allure? The dish’s name – variously translated as tart’s, slut’s and whore’s spaghetti, depending on how insulting you want to be – and the mythology surrounding it explain its popularity as much as its lusty sauce. Did the prostitutes of Naples whip it up between customers, a speedy but satisfying way to boost their energy? Was its tantalising aroma a way to lure new clients to their bedchambers?

If any of those tales come even close to the truth, you have to hope the ladies of the night brushed their teeth after eating it. With its pungent mix of anchovies, garlic, capers and olives, puttanesca sauce is not a dish to be enjoyed second hand.

The more plausible, if less romantic, origin story goes like this: late one night in the 1950s, Sandro Petti, a restaurant owner from Ischia, an island in the Gulf of Naples, was confronted with a group of hungry diners. They demanded he “faccia una puttanata qualsiasi”, which roughly translates as “make us whatever crap you’ve got”. Petti’s pantry was almost bare, but he couldn’t let his customers down.

Nothing that goes into spaghetti puttanesca needs to be fresh. Tomatoes form the base of the sauce but the tinned kind is fine and, apart from those ripened in the hot Campania sun, probably better than fresh ones. Anchovies will sit happily in a cupboard for years. So too will salty capers and olives, which boost the dish’s umami-rich pungency. Dried chillies are a perfectly acceptable way to add heat. Garlic is the closest cooks will get to a fresh ingredient and even that, stored properly, will last for a good few months. It’s a dish that takes minutes to prepare but one that will linger, on your breath and in your mind, for much longer. 

To make the perfect spaghetti puttanesca:

1. Boil and generously salt your water before adding the pasta. Your sauce should be finished by the time it is done.

2. Warm a generous puddle of olive oil over a gentle heat. Add some thinly sliced garlic and fry until it begins to colour and its scent starts to suffuse the air. Add your anchovies and cook until they dissolve into the oil.

3. Stir in capers, black olives and chilli flakes to make an umami-rich slurry. Add tomatoes in the most flavoursome format available – fresh if you are enjoying some Italian summer sun, tinned or in the form of passata elsewhere – and simmer until they are reduced.

4. Drain the pasta and combine thoroughly with the sauce. Check the seasoning and scatter with parsley.