For years a small oval platter celebrating “La Spaghettata” has languished in one of our kitchen cupboards. Acquired at a church attic sale for a couple of dollars, it has an unknown provenance. Pulling it out occasionally to serve crostini, I’ve always wondered how good the platter’s recipe for spaghetti alla puttanesca might be.
You’ve probably heard the story of spaghetti alla puttanesca (“whore-style pasta”). It’s based on ingredients easy to keep on hand–pasta, cured anchovies, olives, capers, garlic, canned tomatoes–that prostitutes could supposedly assemble to make a quick and tasty dish between customers. I’ve always thought the forthrightly strong flavors allude to the coarse nature of the cook’s clients, and perhaps that’s the true meaning of an story that is suspiciously hard to authenticate.
In any case, spaghetti alla puttanesca dates back only to the middle of the 20th century, more or less, at a time when, as the Accademia Italiana della Cucina points out rather disapprovingly, a taste for gusti violenti (“violent flavors”) came into vogue. It is linked to Sicilian and other Southern Italian cuisines, which have always had the good sense to include anchovy pasta sauces, though typically seasoned in a more discreet way.
I’m a big fan of the spaghettata–a impromptu pasta pig-out using available ingredients, served at whatever time of day or night anyone gets hungry–and have relied on all of these ingredients in different combinations. But I had never set out to make a proper spaghetti alla puttanesca. This was the moment.
The Accademia is as good a source as any for the “official” recipe and, as it turns out, the version on my platter is quite similar. Both call for butter as well as olive oil, something missing from my previous puttanesca-like improvisations. The butter turned out to be a brilliant touch, taming the harshness of the anchovy and garlic while adding a luscious richness. It is also important to choose good-quality anchovies and salt-cured capers such as those from Agostino Recca. Hot red pepper doesn’t appear in either of my source recipes but is perfectly at home in this dish.
My little platter accommodates one abundant serving of spaghetti alla puttanesca, but it’s far more fun to cook up a spaghettata for four.
- 1 pound spaghetti
- 2 cloves garlic
- 6 anchovy fillets
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 3 canned plum tomatoes chopped, with some of the puree (about 1 cup)
- 2/3 cup black or green olives pitted and slivered
- 2 teaspoons capers rinsed and roughly chopped
- Kosher salt or sea salt
- Hot red pepper flakes optional
- 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
Fill a large saucepan about two-thirds full with cold water and set over high heat to boil for the spaghetti.
Chop the garlic until fairly fine. Add the anchovies, chopping both until almost a paste. Melt the butter with the oil over medium heat in a skillet or saucepan large enough to hold the cooked pasta. Add the garlic-anchovy mixture, cooking just until fragrant. Stir in the plum tomatoes, olives and capers. Season to taste with salt (if needed) and hot red pepper flakes (if using). Simmer the sauce while the pasta cooks.
Add a small handful of salt and the spaghetti to the water, pressing with a wooden spoon until fully immersed; stir well. Cook until al dente, 8 to 12 minutes. Drain the spaghetti, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water, and turn into the skillet with the sauce. Mix well, adding cooking water as needed for a saucy consistency. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve immediately.