There are several different origin stories about Puttanesca sauce, perhaps all apocryphal. The one most often heard is that it originated with Neapolitan prostitutes at the turn of the 20th century, literally “whore’s pasta”. One version has it that the dish was cheap and quick to prepare between clients. Another is that the aroma was thought to lure customers into the brothels and that the dish was served to them. Food historian Jeremy Parzen says that the name likely derives from the term “puttanesco” denoting something humble or crude, and the related word “puttanata” meaning crap or rubbish. Many sources now seem to agree that the dish was invented mid-20th century by Sandro Petti, co-owner of the Ischian restaurant “Rancio Fellone”. The story is that Petti found himself with some late-arriving, hungry customers and not enough of the ingredients needed to prepare anything on the menu. One of the customers supposedly said to him, “Facci una puttanata qualsiasi!“, “Make any kind of shit!”. So he tossed some spaghetti in a gravy he made from the four tomatoes, two olives and some capers he had on hand, and the dish was a hit: so popular that he added it to his regular menu…or so the story goes. Roma, Napoli, Ischia, Syracusa: you can find stories pointing to all of these places and others.
Then there are the endless arguments about what the “correct” ingredients are: capers or no capers, anchovies or no anchovies, peperoncini or no peperoncini, and so on. I think that the spirit of the dish calls for all of the above, and in quantities that are generous, bordering on excessive. Sugo alla puttanesca, indeed.
Whatever the origin really is, this is one of our favorites. It is tasty, colorful, zesty, quick and easy.
The secret to the characteristic depth of flavor is to slowly sauté the garlic in the oil until it starts to turn golden, then add the anchovies and slowly sauté them while crushing them with a spoon until a paste starts to form.
Only then add the rest of the ingredients and simmer until the sauce thickens a bit (10 minutes, or longer if you like).
Adjust the seasoning, toss with pasta and chopped parsley, and serve.
There is debate about adding some Parmigiano-Reggiano. There are many Italians who will not add cheese to a seafood or fish preparation, and this recipe has anchovies.