Pasta alla Puttanesca

Anchovies… you either love them or you hate them. We happened to love them! For me and my family, pizza without anchovies is like… gluten free cookies without almond milk. (What can I say, we’re a little different.)

In Italian cooking, anchovies are often used as a way to bring out the subtle umami (savory taste) in many dishes — in the same way Asian recipes use fish sauce or oyster sauce. For certain recipes, leaving out that umami note leaves the dish flat and mundane. For many people the best example of this is when they try to duplicate their favorite Asian take-out at home and it just doesn’t taste the same — the problem is you left out that weird little ingredient that produces the distinctive umami that you love.

So, why am I talking so much about anchovies and umami? Because the recipe I’m featuring, Pasta alla Puttanesca, encompasses both.

Doing some online research into the origin of Pasta alla Puttanesca; I found there to be many possibilities and contradictions. There are claims that the dish originated in Rome, Naples, or the Amalfi Coast. The name puttanesca has several “back stories” as to its origin. Most often it is noted that puttanesca is derived from the Italian word puttana meaning prostitute — with the story that since the ingredients are things found in any Italian pantry, it was an easy dish to “throw together” between clients… or that the aroma of the sauce cooking drew in potential “business.” Therefore, some claim that the name is more related to the pungent aromas and flavors of the dish made with garlic, anchovies, olives, and capers — which may be a nod toward the scent of the seamier side of life — with one account during World War II saying that these “camp followers” cooked the dish over barrels of burning garbage to entice the Allied servicemen in trade for nylons, cigarettes and alcohol. Which then leads us to the idea that in Italian “puttanata” is an all purpose profanity which may denote “refuse” or “garbage” (as we might use “crap“) as if to say, “I just threw a bunch of ‘crap’ in the pot and out came this amazing sauce.” This might also speak of the idea of the burning garbage cans — but more likely it denotes the middle-class, humble origins of the dish.

Whatever the origin, it is said to be a popular late night snack in Italy, and eating Pasta alla Puttanesca is a wonderful culinary experience… but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart, or the bland of palate. 

That being said, when you look at recipes for puttanesca sauce you often see smaller amounts of garlic, red pepper flakes, capers and anchovies which to me seems counter intuitive since the dish is known to be spicy, salty, and deeply flavorful. Keep in mind that this sauce is meant to coat the pasta, not drown it, so the strong flavors accent the neutral taste of the pasta. Many times you will see puttanesca sauce served with spaghetti, but here I’m suggesting penne which I think goes nicely as the ridges and short angled tubes allow the sauce to cling.

Pasta alla Puttanesca

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Serves: 4-6 dinner portions

1/4 cup Olive oil

1 medium Yellow Onion – diced
6 cloves Garlic – peeled & minced
1 tsp Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
1 (2 oz) tin Anchovy Fillets in oil – drained & chopped
1 (28 oz) can Whole Peeled Tomatoes – chopped
1/2 cup Dry White Wine (optional)
2 TBSP Capers – drained & chopped
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata Olives – chopped
Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper – to taste
1/2 cup loosely packed Fresh Parsley – chopped
1 TBSP Salt (for pasta water)
16 oz box Penne Pasta
Pecorino Romano Cheese (optional for garnish)

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

2. Meanwhile, add the olive oil to a medium sauce pan over medium heat, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft about 10 minutes.
3. Add the garlic, red pepper, and anchovies to onions and cook, stirring, until the anchovies disintegrate and the garlic has softened, 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Add the tomatoes, wine, capers, and olives. Cover the pot, adjust the heat so the sauce simmers gently, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s thick and saucy, 25 to 30 minutes. Stir in the chopped parsley, taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.
5. When the water comes to a boil, add 1 TBSP salt and pasta. Cook according to package instructions until al dente, about 8 to 10 minutes. Reserve about 1 cup of the pasta cooking liquid and then drain the pasta and return to pot.
6. Pour the sauce over the hot pasta, toss to coat, adding the reserved cooking liquid as needed to thin out the sauce. Serve steaming hot with a generous sprinkling of Pecorino Romano cheese if desired.

There you have it, Pasta alla Puttanesca — not for the faint of heart, but molto dilizioso! And no matter what the name may imply… the bold, exciting flavors and appetizing aroma of this dish make for a memorable, but “PG rated” dining experience. And if you haven’t been an anchovy lover in the past, I  hope you try making puttanesca and taste the wonderful umami these little fishes can bring to your Italian cooking.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”

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