Spaghetti with tomatoes, anchovies, capers and olives
There are several stories and myths about the origins of this happy combination of ingredients commonly known as spaghetti alla puttanesca, or ‘whore’s spaghetti’. The story I’ve been told most often suggests that it was invented at the beginning of the twentieth century by the proprietor – let’s call him Ciro and imagine he is very rotund and with an exuberant nature – of a brothel in the Spanish Quarter of Naples who would make this simple and tasty dish
for clients and his working girls between appointments. A smart flourish to the story is the suggestion that the colours of the sauce (the red of the tomatoes, the vibrant green of the parsley, the grey- green of the capers, the deep violet of the olives and the burgundy of the peperoncino) mirrored the eye-catching colours of the clothes and undergarments of the girls working at the brothel.
Others say that the sauce was created just after World War II
on the island of Ischia, which lies about 30 miles off the coast of Naples, by an eccentric and notoriously hospitable painter called Eduardo Colucci. During one of his summer retreats to a tiny, simple cabin that nestled amongst the olive groves at Punta Molino, he’s said to have made an improvised supper for his various and eclectic group of friends who lounged on the terrace. It was based on his speciality, the classic marinara sauce, but as it evolved he renamed it puttanesca, the exact reasons for which are not clear. But who wants clear?
The third story I’m often told is that the dish was invented
in the 1950s by a certain Sandro Petti, co-owner of the famous restaurant and nightspot Rancio Fellone on the island of Ischia. One evening, just as the restaurant was about to close, Petti found a group of hungry friends sitting at one of his tables. He shrugged his shoulders; it was late, he was low on ingredients and he didn’t have enough to make them a meal. But they raised their hands in despair and cried ‘Mamma mia! Abbiamo fame, facci una puttanata qualsiasi!’ (‘Mamma mia! We are hungry, make us any kind of garbage!’) Used like this, puttanata is a noun meaning ‘rubbish’
or something worthless, even though it derives from the Italian word for whore, puttana. Petti, the story continues, had nothing more than four tomatoes, two olives and some capers, the basic ingredients for the sugo, so he used them to make the sauce for the spaghetti. From that day forth, Petti included the dish on his menu as spaghetti alla puttanesca.
Anyway, whatever the origins, it is a most fiercely delicious 135 and opinionated combination of flavours. It’s useful and practical,
too, because we always have the ingredients in the cupboard, and
because the sauce takes about the same time to make as it does to
bring the water to a fast boil and cook the pasta. A pasta with such strong and particular flavours has to be a very personal thing, so this recipe is a loose guide and not a set of rules; you can experiment.
If you like anchovies, you might like to add more; if you find capers overwhelming, add less or leave them out completely. How salty are your olives? How hot is your chilli? You know better than me. Choose a wine that can stand up to such a formidable pasta, one with taste and body, such as a red from Campania like Aglianico.
You Will Need
Bring a large pan of water to the boil and warm a serving bowl
if you’re going to use one. Finely chop the garlic along with the anchovies. Warm the olive oil in a deep frying pan over a low heat and add the chopped garlic and anchovies, mashing them gently with the back of a wooden spoon so they disintegrate into the oil.
Chop the chilli and add it to the pan. Cook for another couple of minutes. Roughly chop the capers, olives and tomatoes and add them to the pan. Stir and cook over a medium heat for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, salt the boiling water, stir and add the spaghetti, fanning it out and pressing it gently into the water (without breaking it) with the back of a wooden spoon. Cook, stirring occasionally, until it is al dente (check the cooking time on the packet and start tasting at least 2 minutes earlier). Drain the pasta and, having pulled the sauce off the heat, toss it with the sauce, sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately. Alternatively – and more correctly – transfer the drained pasta into a warm serving bowl, tip over the sauce, toss with a spoon and a fork, sprinkle with parsley and serve.