Gutsy. Sharp. Piquant. Robust. Bold. Strong. Intense. To be eaten in “slatternly style” (Nigella).
An Italian sauce that provokes these appetising adjectives from all sorts of food writers has to be tried.
I doubt this delectably simple dish of earthy goodness is new to you. My first taste of Spaghetti alla Puttanesca was enjoyed at my mother’s table. She used Delia Smith’s recipe – the name anglicised by the chef as Tart’s Spaghetti – puttana meaning “whore”.
So did prostitutes create this sauce, having to rely on ingredients close at hand because they were denied fresh foods at the market? Or did they just need a speedy supper between clients?
Or, as food and wine historian Jeremy Parzen deduces, was it restaurateur Sandro Petti’s flash of culinary genius on the island of Ischia (in the Gulf of Naples) in the 1950s? When ravenous friends begged for a bite to eat, “Facci una puttanata qualsiasi” (“Make any kind of crap”), he threw together the bare ingredients he had: four tomatoes, two olives and some capers, and mixed it with spaghetti. Apparently Spaghetti alla Puttanata sounded a bit … crap? So with more of a punch, Spaghetti alla Puttanesca was added to Petti’s menu.
Cooks creating this pungently hot sauce are appropriately assertive in how it should be done. Nigel Slater denounces Parmesan (too much saltiness), but likes tinned anchovies and tomatoes. Jamie Oliver apes Gennaro Contaldo and prefers fresh cherry tomatoes. Italian chef Anna del Conte opts for a garnish of parsley, and says that no other pasta shape than spaghetti will do. Some chuck the capers and olives in with the tomatoes, some wait for a fresher finish.
I could go on, but I haven’t the time – I’m hungry. And that’s the joy of puttanesca – a quick unrefined raid of the kitchen cupboard to create a coarse, fiery contrast of tastes.
Nigel Slater’s recipe is the one I follow most (I love the way he writes) but this is a sauce that encourages a bold take, and it’s definitely one to make your own. I adore anchovies, so forget the one or two or four – I’m devouring the whole tin. And I’m throwing caution to the wind, with apologies to purists, and sprinkling La Dalia Pimentón for a Spanish kick.
So now I leave you while I heat up my sauce, add some basil and lots of gritty, salty Parmesan.
Spaghetti will feature (I agree with Anna del Conte), but luckily I’ve made a bucket-load of this intensely delicious sauce, and next time it’ll fire up some fish.