The working girl’s pasta sauce


The working girl’s pasta sauce

ALETTA LINTVELT traces the origins of a favourite dish — and decides not to let dull facts get in the way of a dramatic and deliciously sordid tale.


THIS week I’m sharing my favourite pasta sauce, which is an adaptation of the hellishly tasty puttanesca. The origin and exact method of preparation of this sauce are somewhat mythical.

When I was Eat-Pray-Loving my way through Italy a few years ago, I quickly discovered that the names of dishes were often a mere guideline to what I could expect on the plate. Before that trip, I tended to think of Italian dishes in exact terms. I guess this insistence on a dish meeting expectations is an affliction stemming from eating restaurant food or first being introduced to a dish by meeting it in a recipe book.

In Italy I frequently heard the phrase “like mother used to make". And that says everything you need to know about real Italian cooking. Few recipes have been documented in published books, and if you considered these iterations as the only way to make a dish it would be akin to taking one photo of a country and arguing that it represents the whole.

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While each region is known for specific combinations of ingredients and methods of preparation, and considers deviation sacrilege, the specific quantities and how they shake out on the plate are mostly dependent on availability of the ingredients and the whims of the home cook.

I only once made the mistake of asking for chilli with a dish that did not arrive with it. The chilli was provided, but not before I received a dramatic lecture worthy of a telenovela, and a suggestion that I try a restaurant with a menu accompanied by pictures. The stream of Italian profanities let me know that not only was I an ignorant fool, but I had also deeply insulted the chef and indeed his whole lineage. If you have a taste for disdain, I highly recommend being passionately shouted at about how to eat properly, in Italian, while paying for the privilege.

Which brings me to the origin story of today’s recipe. The tale goes that in Napoli, this sauce was hurriedly concocted by working girls in bordellos between clients. This version appeals to my imagination as it conjures up visions of comely sirens satisfying their hunger between tending to the appetites of their clients. There are those who say the clever courtesans so frequently resorted to cooking up the quick dish that the aroma of the brothels lured customers, and the profession itself become synonymous with it.

Others have hypothesised that the naming of the dish references its pungent flavour profile. The dish, which brings together copious amounts of garlic, capers, olives, chilli and, most essentially, the fishy aroma of anchovies, could be a tongue-in-cheek reference with an added vulgar connotation.

Putting aside the romantic notion of hot girls cooking homely meals, this is an improbable explanation which has taken on a life of its own since Arthur Schwartz in his Naples at Table (1998) argued that the dish got its name in reference to a puttana (translated as a whore).

Italian food historians, however, point to puttanata, commonly used as slang in the same colloquial manner as shit, as the more likely origin. An anecdote from circa 1950 about a famed Ischian restaurant owner suggests puttanesca’s more likely origins describe a dish in which you “just threw random stuff — aka shit — together in a pot”. Which makes sense if you consider that the ingredients are key components of Amalfian cuisine.

Jeanne Francesconi describes the creation of a sugo alla puttanesca in her 1977 collection of Neapolitan food as an adaptation of the classic alla marinara sauce. Either way, it is commonly accepted that the dish originated in Naples after World War 2 — when bordellos were already outlawed — as tomato-based sauces gained popularity.

But why spoil a dramatic and deliciously sordid tale with facts? Working girls everywhere will appreciate the simplicity of this dish.


Roasted puttanesca

While roasting all the ingredients together is not tradizionale, my preference is to bang everything in the oven instead of the more hands-on technique of sautéing. It also makes for a good balance of sweet and pungent without being too saucy. If you want it more saucy, add a tin of tomatoes to the tray at the end of the roasting time and roast till heated and bubbly. This recipe is enough for two.

  • 400 g ripest cherry/rosa tomatoes
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 4 anchovy fillets
  • handful kalamata olives, pitted
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 4 tbsp capers
  • 1 tsp chilli flakes
  • 2 tbsp fresh origanum leaves
  • ground black pepper, to taste
  • 225 g tagliatelle (or pasta of choice)
  • grated parmesan, to taste
  • sea salt, to taste


1. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Halve the cherry tomatoes and place cut side facing up in a single layer in a snug-fitting baking dish. Tuck the garlic, anchovies and olives in whole. Pour the olive oil over.

2. Roast for 20 minutes or until the garlic is soft and the tomatoes blistered and soft.

3. Remove from the oven and use the tines of a fork to mash the garlic and anchovies in the dish.

4. Sprinkle over the capers, chilli flakes and origanum leaves. Season with black pepper.

5. Return to the oven to heat through. Keep an eye on it — the tomato juices create the sauce so you must be careful to not let them evaporate.

6. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add a good pinch of salt and boil pasta per packet instruction to al dente.

7. Add the cooked pasta to the roasting tray and stir through with a tablespoon or three of the water in which you boiled the pasta.

8. Serve the pasta with extra olive oil and grated parmesan.

9. I usually scatter over chopped rocket and a scant grating of lemon zest to finish it. But you might prefer fresh chopped parsley or basil and pine nuts if you are feeling flush.

PS. If pasta is an issue for you, try gluten-free store-bought gnocchi or add a jar of chickpeas to the sauce. I also often roast cauliflower florets and use them in the place of pasta as a vehicle for the sauce. 

♦ VWB ♦

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