Puttanesca is not for prostitutes…

Originally published in January 2008, this post is one of my favorites.

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.

2 Responses to Puttanesca is not for prostitutes…

  1. Simona says:

    Good job, Jeremy! Nice summary of the various elements of the debate.

  2. Antonio Ciccarelli says:

    Hi Jeremy, don’t forget the secret for a real Puttanesca sauce: the original Olive di Gaeta from Itrana varietal. 90% of the olive di Gaeta you will find in the market are fake, the production area is limited to a small area in south of Latium.

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