Spaghetti alla Puttanesca derives its name from the Italian word for whore (“putta”) and more or less translates as “garbage-style” or “worthless” spaghetti.
Why that is, I’m not so sure, since this is one of my favorite pasta dishes, and offers one of the most exquisite harmony of flavors found in the world of spaghetti recipes.
I could speculate more about the origins of the name—the first reference to this in literature appeared in a 1960s novel, there’s some speculation that prostitutes lured customers with the smell of their cooking and the recipe seems to have ties to Sicily… or Naples—but despite my research I just don’t know, and as with so many Italian recipes, the truth probably lies obscured deep in the smoky kitchens of history.
Perhaps the dish is aptly named, however, as it it is so tasty it will knock your pants right off you.
And so, Spaghetti alla Puttanesca:
First, you’ll need to gather your ingredients:
Spaghetti (There’s a way of measuring spaghetti servings with your hands, which I have not yet mastered; otherwise just follow the suggested servings on the box, plus a little extra.)
Olive Oil (the good stuff)
Garlic (1 or 2 cloves per person, chopped)
Anchovies (For 1 to 2 servings, I use about 4 anchovies… or more… but I really like anchovies. You can use less, or even anchovy paste if you don’t care for the flavor much.)
Capers (The big ones packed in sea salt are the best, soaked in warm water for at least 10 minutes before using, but anything works. Again, quantity depends entirely on how much you like capers.)
Onions (1/4 per person, chopped—optional)
Olives (any kind, roughly chopped—optional)
Tomatoes (1/2 of a large tomato, or a handful of cherry tomatoes per person, chopped; canned also works)
Dried Chili (a pinch, a spoonful, a handful… how hot do you like it?)
Salt and pepper (to taste)
Fresh Basil (optional)
Now, here’s what to do with it:
Set a pot of water to boil, toss in a generous handful of sea salt, and when the water’s rolling, throw in your desired amount of spaghetti. Cook until al dente (slightly “undercooked” by American standards, where the pasta still has some chewiness to it), then strain, putting aside a cup of the starchy pasta water.
Meanwhile, heat some olive oil in a pan on medium-low, then add garlic, cooking until fragrant but not quite brown. Add the the anchovies, capers and olives and onions (if you’re using them) and stir—your mouth may begin to water. You can add chili now, or wait until the end for a more concentrated punch.
Next, add your tomatoes, and some more olive oil if things are getting dry. Fry for a few minutes, then add some of that pasta water you’ve been wondering about (usually I do a splash, but sometimes I’ll add a whole cup and then leave the sauce to simmer longer), and simmer—covered, unless you want to reduce the volume of liquid.
At some point, get some music going and a glass of red wine by your side. Whether dinner for one, two or eight, this dish calls for a little unwinding.
I typically only simmer the sauce for 5 minutes, but you can go longer, for saucier, or shorter for fresher. Once it’s ready, add salt and pepper to taste and more chili if you like. Toss in your spaghetti and do your best to coat it evenly. Shred your basil and toss it in as well.
Serve quickly, then drizzle a bit more olive oil over each plate of spaghetti—it adds flavor and health benefits, and it’s a great touch when you’re serving food.
Lose the pants, sit back, and enjoy!
Bonus: Anyone remember this?
Author: Toby Israel
Photo: Author’s Own