Signora Bilenchi remembers Pasta alla Puttanesca

Above: Mrs. and Mr. Bilenchi with their son Robert in Brooklyn in 1969.

When it comes to the origins of many of the classic Italian dishes that we all know and love, it’s nearly impossible to identity the etymon — the origin, the fons origo, the spring from which it sprang. Such is the case with Spaghetti alla Carbonara, for example: to my knowledge, no scholar has been able to trace its history with even the remotest semblance of certainty. In fact, as gastronomic philologists, all we know with certainty is what we don’t know about many of the great recipes of the Italian culinary canon.

Such is the case for Pasta alla Puttanesca: you may remember my post in which I traced all the historical data I could gather on the origins of this dish we all love so much.

The fact of the matter is that we live in a time of intensified awareness of the gastronomy that surrounds us. Not since the Italian Renaissance has Western Civilization devoted so much attention (and scholarship) to the foods that we eat. During the 20th century, when dishes like Carbonara and Puttanesca became so popular, we all lived in a culinary dark ages — when scholarship ignored the workaday aspects of our nutriment. BTW, for the record, neither Artusi (whose cookbook was compiled in 1891) nor Cavalcanti (1837) mention either Puttanesca or Carbonara.

The other day, a reader from Detroit — a Brooklyn native born to a Neapolitan mother, Robert Bilenchi — left the following comment on the post. I love his idea of trying to document the dish’s origins by interviewing folks who were living in Italy in the periods between the two wars and after the second world war. In the truest spirit of philology (the love of words), I asked Robert for some photographs of his mother and permission to post them here with his mother’s observations.

My mother is 93 and is still living. She was born in 1917. She remembers this dish, Spaghetti [alla] 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 the ’30s to refute the ’50s story of the invention of Spaghetti [alla] 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 ’60s, this does not show it was invented just prior to that time. Let’s do a study while these people are still alive.

Click here to read my original post.

In his own words, Robert is “a retired engineer living in Dearborn Michigan. I grew up in Brooklyn NY with my parents and 2 brothers. We all were spoiled on my mother’s cooking and we each learned to cook her specialties hanging onto her apron strings.”

Thanks for reading! Buona domenica, ya’ll!

5 thoughts on “Signora Bilenchi remembers Pasta alla Puttanesca

  1. It makes perfect seonse that Artusi not mention either spaghetti alla carbonara or pasta alla puttanesca. Both are what he would have celled plebean, and neither is at all common even now in his native Romagna, or his adoptive Tuscany, the regions that supplied the vast majority of the recipes in his book.

    Ada Boni, who was writing in the late 20s, does mention spaghetti alla carbonara (and has a versione di magro too) but not puttanesca, and there the tawdry name may be a problem — people running cooking schools for upper class Roman housewives didn’t menion puttane in the days before the war, when Case Chiuse were doing brisk business. It could be called something else — I haven’t checked — and Cavalcanti could have given the recipe but with a different name too. Again, I haven’t checked.

    • looking forward to the results of your research Kyle! Thanks for taking the time on this. Artusi is searchable in both Italian and English btw on Google Books. I edited a Cavalcanti a few years back for Tommasi Editore in Milan. There’s no mention or even a semblance of Puttanesca or Carbonara in Cavalcanti (both the central text and the Cucina Casereccia). There is a dish using raw egg to dress pasta, perhaps an antecedent to Carbonara. Thanks!

  2. I like this Facebook format!! I wish U sucess!
    ……as always, Greetings and Maximum Respect from Venice……….California!!

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