The origins of Sugo alla puttanesca?

Above: spaghetti alla puttanesca. There’s one thing we can all agree on: “sugo alla puttanesca” (literally “whoreish sauce”) is made with tomatoes, olives, capers, salt-cured anchovies, garlic, and chili flakes (give or take an ingredient or two). There’s no questioning that it tastes good.

In the wake of my post-new-year’s eve post “Taittinger alla puttanesca”, fellow bloger Marco wrote me, collegially questioning my belief that “sugo alla puttanesca” should not be attributed to prostitutes or their culinary preferences. I promised Marco that I would do some more research and another post. Here’s what I found:

1) the earliest text to reference pasta “alla puttanesca” cited by the Grande dizionario della lingua italiana (edited by Salvatore Battaglia) is Raffaele La Capria’s 1961 novel Ferito a morte (translated as The Mortal Wound, 1962).

2) according to a study commissioned by the Unione Industriali Pastai Italiani (Italian Pasta-Makers Union), pasta “alla puttanesca” first became popular in Italy during the 1960s.

3) a search in The New York Times electronic archive revealed that the first mention of “puttanesca” sauce in the paper was made on January 28, 1972 by restaurant reviewer Jean Hewitt in her review of Trattoria da Alfredo (then located at 90 Bank street): “spaghetti Puttanesca [sic], which has a tantalizing tomato, garlic, anchovy and black olive sauce.”

4) in her landmark tome on Neapoitan cuisine, La cucina napoletana (1977), Jeanne Carola Francesconi attributes the creation of sugo alla puttanesca to Ischian painter Eduardo Maria Colucci (1900-1975) who — according to Francesconi — concocted “vermicelli alla puttanesca” as an adaptation of alla marinara or “seaside-style” sauce.

But the definitive albeit anecdotal answer to this conundrum may lie in an article published by Annarita Cuomo in the Ischia daily, Il golfo, in February, 2005: “Il sugo ‘alla puttanesca’ nacque per caso ad Ischia, dall’estro culinario di Sandro Petti,” “Puttanesca sauce was born by accident in Ischia, the child of Sandro Petti’s culinary flair.”

According to Cuomo, sugo alla puttanesca was invented in the 1950s by Ischian jet-setter Sandro Petti, co-owner of Ischia’s famed restaurant and nightspot, the “Rancio Fellone.”* When asked by his friends to cook for them one evening, Petti found his pantry bare. When he told his friends that he had nothing to cook for them, they responded by saying “just make us a ‘puttanata qualsiasi,’” in other words, “just make us whatever crap” you have (see my original post for a definition of the Italian puttanata).

“All I had was four tomatoes, a couple of capers, and some olives,” Petti told Cuomo. “So I used them to make the sauce for the spaghetti.” Petti then decided to include the dish on the menu at the Rancio Fellone but “spaghetti alla puttanata didn’t sound right. So I called it [spaghetti] alla puttanesca.”**

Petti’s anecdote is probably tenable but is by no means exhaustive (from a philological point of view). To make matters worse, Colucci was Petti’s uncle and it’s unclear why Francesconi attributes the dish to the painter. But philology is an inexact science: the origin of sugo alla puttanesca probably lies some where between the isle of Ischia and the Amalfitan coast, where tomatoes, capers, olives, anchovies, and garlic are ingredients of choice. It’s clear that the dish emerged sometime after World War II when tomato-based sauces grew in popularity among the Italian middle class. My philological sensibility leads me to favor the “puttanata/puttanesca” theory over any other and there is no evidence — at least that I can find — that points to prostitution as the origin of the dish.***

There’s one thing we can all agree on: sugo alla puttanesca tastes good.

* A rancio fellone is a sea spider or spiny crab, a common ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine.

** Like the French à la, the Italian expression “alla” (the preposition a + the definite article la) denotes “in the style of” or “after the fashion of” and is always followed by an adjective (not a noun); alla puttanesca sounded better to Petti because puttanesca is an adjective (while puttanata is a noun).

*** In his Naples at Table (1998), the otherwise venerable but hardly philologically minded Arthur Schwartz reports a number of apocryphal etymologies whereby Neapolitan prostitutes are indicated — in one way or another — as the originators of this dish. He even goes as far as to write that a seemingly celebrated nineteenth-century courtesan, Yvette “La Francese” (Yvette the French [prostitute]), a native of Provence, may have created the dish to assuage her homesickness. The fact that the dish emerged during the 1950s would seem to dispel any romantic notions of pasta alla puttanesca in nineteenth-century Neapolitan bordellos. Brothels were outlawed in Italy in 1958.

30 thoughts on “The origins of Sugo alla puttanesca?

  1. Jeremy,
    Philological research worthy of the library of Alexandria. It’s really a shame that the Christian Brothers steered my away from Italian ALM to French. I read poorly and speak even more so. I was also under the false impression that southern Italians were condimenting their pasta with tomatoes for much longer. It’s a little strange how history inflates and conflates time. Or maybe it’s just plain ignorance. But the excellent shot at the top (yours?) is worth all the myth breaking and research into what is probably one of my top 5 pasta dishes. Thanks for shedding light on a sauce with a somewhat dark past. It’s also quite ill, as they say.

  2. Marco, thanks for the insightful comment. The marriage of tomatoes and pasta — as we know it today — occurred relatively late, although tomatoes were used in meat sauces as early as the late eighteenth century. Cheese was the condiment par excellence for pasta until the modern era and noodles were often topped with cinnamon in Renaissance banquets. Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. Happy cooking and eating!

  3. And here I was thinking all along that it was a Sicilian dish, since the earliest examples I had were in Sicilian restaurants, including a notable example in the North End of Boston around 1980. The flavor profile is definitely a stronger, Sicilian one than Neapolitan.

    As to the popularity of tomato sauce, it’s interesting to discover that it became popular after WWII both here and in Italy. I just wish Americans who think that”Southern Italian” cooking is all about sugo di pomodoro could go to Puglia, Campania, etc., and see what a relatively minor supporting role it has. The food there is so much more varied and exciting than we know of here.

    The common thread in all of Italy, they’d soon see, is olive oil.

  4. Terry, although it’s generally agreed that sugo alla puttanesca originated in Campania, La Capria’s 1961 reference to the dish actually points to Syracuse: “spaghetti alla puttanesca come li fanno a Siracusa.” Clouding the matter even more is the fact that La Capria is a undeniably Neapolitan native and writer. There is certainly more research to be done!

    Thanks for reading and the insightful comment.

  5. J,
    I roasted some excellent eggplant last night and combined it with puttanesca and put it over some macaroni. I might post it later. Hope you enjoyed the Vias tasting.

  6. Interesting, the La Capria citation. It jibes with what I remember growing up in NE Massachusetts, where virtually all Italian-Americans were of Sicilian origin. This included the dissemination of their dialect to the Anglo population; every schoolboy up there used to exclaim “Minghia” (the Sicilian pronunciation) all the time.

  7. This is an interesting topic to me, I must admit.

    I forgot to mention that the tomato-based sauce on the Sicilian-style pizza that we had from the early 1950s tasted (and still does) very much like a puttanesca sauce w/o the anchovies. And the families who ran the pizzerias were from the east coast of Sicily. So La Capria’s reference is perhaps like one of those “lost” references in Homer that archaeologists then discover had a historical basis!

  8. Clarification: when I wrote Syracuse I meant Syracuse, Sicily. Thanks for all the comments and the dialog on this. I’m going to continue to research this and I think that Terry’s on to something: puttanesca had to develop out of a marinara sauce…

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  10. what an interesting post! i had no idea that such a famous dish originated in my ischia. i do believe, however, that the name of that restaurant/club is o’ ragno fellone, which is obviously in dialect. it was quite the happenin’ spot in ischia’s golden age (50s). they’ve tried to revive it with little success.

    no matter the origin, with le linguine e’ meravigliosa!

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  15. My mother is 93 is still living, she was born in 1917. She remembers this dish, speghetti puttanesca as a child and a young adult in Naples Italy. My parents made the dish when I was growing up in New York in the ’50s. So how then does this dish get to be invented in the ’50s. My parents were not well connected enough to have received the recipe from any Italian chef who might have been associated with the alleged inventor. Someone needs to do a survey of older Italians born prior to th the ’30 to refute the ’50s story of the invention of spaghetti puttanesca. The Annarita Cuomo story appears to be erroneus. Sandro Petti did not invent the dish and though a study may have found the dishes popularity to have swelled in the ’60 this does not show it was invented just proir to that time. Lets do a study while these people are still alive.

    • @Robert I’d love to hear your mother’s story! :-) Can you get her to tell it to you? I’d love to post it here… my email jparzen [at] gmail [dot] com thanks in advance!

    • Robert, I agree with your sentiments 100%. I’ve also responded to a post on another blog that claims “tomato-based didn’t appear in Italy until the period following the second world war.” Which I found both interesting and humorous since my grandmother and great grandmother had been making tomato sauce since the turn of the century.

      Historians need data and documentation, but just because something wasn’t widely published doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. I hope someone takes your advice and does their own research by interviewing central and southern Italians in their 60s and 70s to see whether or not these assertions of pre-WW2 Italian cuisine are really true or not.

  16. I tend to agree that the name of this dish would have a much longer history than ‘official’ lexicographical sources may record. This tends to be true of much street language. Prostitutes could well eat in great haste from a limited selection of ingredients. But another quite obvious link with the special taste of the dish relates to the fishy/salty/spicy flavour. As degenerate worldly wise habitues of brothels may be able to confirm.

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  27. I don’t know what else to say on the story. My parents made the dish many times when I was growing up in the ’50s & ’60s and spoke of its risque meaning. When I read from different sources that the recipe was “invented” in the ’50s, I questioned my mother about it and she said that it was impossible for that to be true as she tasted the dish at home while growing up in the ’30s in Naples Italy. It made sense to me since she and my father prepared the dish for my brothers and I in the ’50s. What I find odd is that if the Italian newspaper article stating that the dish was created by Sandro Petti, why were there then no refuting letters written to the newspaper objecting to that claim at that time. I mean were there no Italians of a certain age especially chefs who knew that that recipe was in fact much older than that. I would like to see what the staff of that newspaper have to say about it. Maybe someone on the paper was related to Sandro Petti. Curious. Doesn’t anyone at the check their sources for veracity?
    Curious

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