Spaghetti alla puttanesca
I am still relieving moments from the trip to Italy so bear with me. The best spaghetti alla puttanesca we had was in Naples at the authentic Antica Pizzeria Port Alba, rumoured to have created the first pizza in Naples. The pasta was perfectly cooked, had just enough sauce and the flavours were intense and pure. That dish remained in my memory and today I thought I would try and recreate it the best I could.
I emailed Susy, whose family has owned the Antica pizzeria Port’ Alba for several generations and who was our private guide on the Food Tour of Naples excursion (I wrote about it here) and asked if I could get the family recipe. I heard back from her instantly and she sent me a link to this story and recipe, saying that this is the method her family uses.
Of course, you cannot reproduce the flavours exactly. In Naples they make the sauce with special thick skinned tomatoes they call pomodrini de pienolo or Vesuvius tomatoes, see image below. They grow in large clusters and are perfect for making tomato sauces, especially in the southern style. We don’t have anything like that here and field tomatoes are not out yet, they arrive much later in the season, so I used a can of San Marzano tomatoes (sorry Susy) and added a little tomato passata that comees in a glass bottle.
As an side, I searched my Italian cookbooks for recipes for puttanesca but didn’t find any, even in Marcella Hazan’s book. There are many recipes online though. I wonder why that is. Perhaps these are regional cookbooks and puttanesca is not from those regions. It may surprise you but generally I am not the kind of cook that follows recipes. I educate myself about the subject and then experiment in the kitchen.
Do you know the story of puttanesca? The root of the word is puttana, meaning prostitute and, for a more palatable version the dish is also known as pasta alla belle donne, or pasta of the beautiful women. There a few popular versions of the story floating around. One tells of men being lured into the houses of the beautiful women by the aromas wafting from their house into the night’s air. Another version tells the sauce was made at a restaurant late at night from leftover ingredients to serve the ladies after a long night’s work. The definitive story though seems to be something else and you can read about it here. The source of the story is Carole Jeanne Francessconi, author of La Cucina Napolitrana . She tells that the sauce was invented on the island of Ischia in the 1950’s when a notable architect was entertaining a group of artists friends. At midnight (see, it’s a nighttime story) they were asking to be fed and he had nothing left in the kitchen. They persisted to ask for food and he managed to make a pasta dish from the ingredients hanging around his kitchen that we know today. Somehow the word puttana worked itself into the conversation and it stuck as the name of the dish. So, there you have it, the story of puttanesca.
Like all Italian foods, this is simple to make and packed with flavour if you use the right ingredients. The classic ingredients are olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, black olives, capers, anchovies, hot pepper, oregano, salt and pepper.
I used my favourite Le Creuset enamelled cast iron pot to cook the sauce: I heated the oil and garlic gently, added the anchovy I brought from Italy and let them dissolve in the sauce, then added the olives, capers red pepper and stirred for a few seconds before adding the tomatoes. I may have broken with tradition by adding a little thyme. From there I let everything simmer slowly, breaking down the tomatoes with a wooden spoon, until the sauce was thick and delicious. I salted it a little in the beginning, with final salting towards the end.
When the pasta was cooked just barley al dente I drained it, reserving a cup of the starchy pasta water (to be used to thin or thicken the sauce as needed) and added the pasta to the sauce to warm up and soak the flavours, not too long to over cook the pasta, just long enough.
A cascade of chopped parsley and grated parmesan finished the dish.
It was fun to enjoy a bowl of pasta reminiscent of a dish we had on the trip. I hope you enjoy it too.
12 oz pasta
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
4 anchovy filets, chopped (optional but not authentic without it)
1/2 cup black olives, pitted and coarsley chopped
2 tablespoons capers, drained
1 large pinch hot pepper flakes
1 28 oz can tomatoes
1 cup Passata di Pomodoro (strained tomatoes, comes in a glass bottle). If you don’t have it, substitute with 1-2 tablespoons of tomato paste
1 tablespoon or a large pinch dried oregano
Salt and pepper
Chopped flat leaf parsley
Place the olive oil and garlic in a pot and begin warming up the oil until the garlic is fragrant. Don’t let the garlic turn golden.
Add the chopped anchovy and let it dissolve into the sauce for a couple of minutes on low heat.
Add the olives, capers and hot pepper and stir for a few seconds over low heat.
Add the tomatoes, and bring to a slow boil, lower the heat, add the herbs and let cook, bubbling slowly, until the flavours meld and the sauce comes together, about 20 minutes uncovered.
You can start adding salt now but be careful not to add too much as the sauce will reduce and flavours will concentrate and intensify.
Stir occasionally and break down the tomatoes with a wooden spoon but this is not a smooth sauce, you want some tomato chunks in there.
When the sauce is ready adjust the final salt and pepper as needed.
Cook the spaghetti according to package directions and drain when ready, keeping one cup of the starchy pasta water.
Add the pasta to the pot with the sauce and mix gently over low heat, letting the pasta absorb the sauce. If necessary, you can loosen up the sauce with a little bit of the pasta water.
To serve, pile the pasta into bowls, sprinkle with chopped parsley and grated parmesan and serve immediately.
Remember, pasta waits for no one.