Easter greetings from Montalcino and the etymology of Easter

Above: I just couldn’t resist reposting this photo sent from our friends Laura and Marco at Il Palazzone in Montalcino.

In English today, we use the name Easter to denote the springtime Christian holiday and festival, from “Eostre (Northumbrian spelling of Éastre),” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition), “the name of a goddess whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox.”

In nearly every other Western language, however, we use a name that corresponds to the name of the Jewish festival of the Passover: “Greek πασχά, Hebrew pésaḥ [pesach], Latin pascha, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Dutch pask,” write the editors of the OED.

Until the late nineteenth century, Anglophones also commonly used the name pasch to denote the Easter feast (as in the expression the paschal lamb): from the “Aramaic pisḥā Passover fesival, Passover sacrifice, Passover meal (emphatic form of pasaḥ [meaning] to pass over; compare Syriac peṣḥā Passover, Easter, Hebrew pesaḥ Passover).”

What does passing over have to do with it all?

“The festival is named after the Lord’s ‘passing over’ the houses of the People of Israel, whose doorposts were marked with the blood of a lamb, while the Egyptians were punished with the death of their firstborn (Exodus 11–12).”

Buona pasqua, happy Easter, kalo pascha (Greek), ya’ll! :-)

Sangiovese Grosso: Italian grape name pronunciation project


This week’s episode of the Italian Grape Name Pronunciation Project is devoted to Sangiovese Grosso as spoken by my friend Federico Marconi who was born in Castelnuovo dell’Abate (a subzone of Montalcino) and general manager of the small estate Le Presi (click here for my post on Le Presi and a great photo IMHO of the strata of volcanic soil that define the wines raised in Castelnuovo).

Sangiovese is relatively easy to pronounce for Anglophones. But for the record, it is pronounced here by a bona fide toscano and ilcinese (ilcinese or montalcinese is the ethnonym used to denote an inhabitant of Montalcino).

Also, for the record, please see my post on the Origins of the Grape Name Sangiovese, which most probably does not mean the blood of Jove — a folkloric etymology too often repeated by wine writers who don’t do their homework (I cover all of the current theories of its origins in the post).

Above: “Due palle così!” My good friend Federico entertained the nice ladies at the famous food shop Nannetti e Bernardini in Pienza (HIGHLY recommended, especially for its legendary porchetta).

Federico is one of the most colorful and lovely people I know in Montalcino and his Ramones t-shirt is his de rigueur uniform (as you can see above). He’s one of those people, to borrow an observation by the great Montalcino winemaker Fabrizio Bindocci, who makes you smile when he walks into the room.

Rewind: The origins of sugo alla puttanesca?

Taking a break today and reposting something from the days when Do Bianchi was just getting started. One of my favorite posts. Little did I know at the time that I would meet and marry a wonderful, beautiful lady who had lived on the island of Ischia and who makes the best puttanesca I’ve ever tasted… Thanks for reading! And happy Bastille Day!

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.