Spaghetti alla Putanesca: A Storied Dish to Spice up Winter Dining

The scent of evil perpetually attracts. In the 1890s, for example, Oscar Wilde noted, “As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.”

Spaghetti alla Putanesca, a deliciously savory dish of alleged ill repute, reportedly emerged from the war-ravaged brothels of Naples in the late 1940s. The name means spaghetti in the style of, well, ladies of negotiable virtue. The dish can be prepared quickly, suitable perhaps between clients. It needs only non-refrigerated ingredients as might have been found in the pantry of your typical disorderly Neapolitan brothel kitchen – spaghetti, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, anchovies, capers, dry hot pepper. The illicit-sounding dish became popular by the 1950s. Its catchy title inevitably brought out nudge-nudge, wink-wink attempts at wit: “fast,” “easy,” “hot.”

Unfortunately, food historians have focused on a flamboyant cook and nightclub host on the nearby island of Ischia, not Naples working girls, as the likely creator. Yet, the lingering name suited the Italian sense of obscene culinary humor. Italy, after all, boasts the drink “Strega” (witch), “Fra Diavalo” (devil monk) sauce, “Strozzapreti” (priest stranglers) pasta, and a white-frosted, cherrytopped Sicilian cookie called “Minne di Sant’Agatha” (I’ll let you translate), which celebrates the severed body parts of a 3rd century virgin martyr. Worse yet, Italians designated the scholarly deacon St. Lawrence, another early Roman martyr, patron saint of chefs— not because he cooked but because he himself was cooked to death on a gridiron.

To make Spaghetti alla Putanesca (you remember Spaghetti alla Putanesca, don’t you?) the trick— a risky word here—is having the sauce ready before boiling the pasta. Cheese is not traditionally used. Dry white wines are recommended for pairing because of the anchovies and hot peppers.


Spaghetti alla Putanesca

The recipe serves six as a starter course, four as a meal.

4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 (2-ounce) can anchovy fillets (save oil), coarsely chopped
24 Greek Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
2 tablespoons capers, drained
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
6 tablespoons combined oil from anchovies plus olive oil as needed
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
Salt, if needed
3/4 pound (12 ounces) spaghetti

Boil large pot of water for the pasta, and prepare the ingredients.

In large frying pan gently fry garlic in the oil 10 seconds, stirring. Add anchovies and hot pepper. Fry 1/2 minute. Add tomatoes, olives, and capers. Raise heat and boil, stirring, 2 minutes. Taste, and add salt if needed. Remove from heat. Stir in parsley.

Add 1 tablespoon salt to the boiling water. Add pasta, stirring immediately so it doesn’t stick. As pasta softens, bite a piece to test. When just tender, drain in colander. In large serving bowl, toss pasta with 3/4 of the sauce. Spoon remainder on top.

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Tim Dondero
Tim Dondero
Tim Dondero is co-owner and executive chef at Donderos’ Kitchen, 590 N. Milledge Ave. He retired last year from his day job as a medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. During his long career in international health and infectious diseases, he and his family lived for many years in Southeast Asia and West Africa. He also worked extensively in the Americas, Asia and Africa. An enthusiastic cook since childhood, he always sought out local restaurants and local cooks when traveling. Now in Athens, he devotes his time to his restaurant, catering, teaching and blogging about cooking (timdonderosrecipes.blogspot.com), and writing occasionally for BoomAthens.

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