I invented pasta alla puttanesca. I swear I did.
I remember fiddling around in my pantry one night in my mid twenties, hungry for something quick and delicious. I remember the can of black Colossal black olives–the kind you stick on your fingers as a kid and which taste faintly of metal and brine–the jar of capers, the can of diced tomatoes, the cloves of garlic smashed against my cutting board with the back of a knife. Yes, I thought, these things go together. And maybe a shake of crushed red pepper, too…
I don’t know when I figured out that this particular combination of ingredients has been iconic since the 1960’s, but okay fine, I’ll share the glory since really, this is one of the most delicious (and easiest) things in the world.
Since my twenties, I’ve refined my tastes a bit so that instead of canned olives, I use the fancy ones steeped in brine or olive oil, nestled between the balsamic pearl onions and the fire roasted peppers at the Wegmans Olive Bar. I like a combination of deep purple Kalamatas and tart green Manzanillas for extra kick.
Because, oh, you have to have the kick. That’s the whole point. This is not a “round” sauce–not subtle, not soft. No, this is a sauce that wakes your mouth up and starts it singing. It’s a saucy sauce. You know what I mean.
Some recipes call for onions, but I don’t like the sweet notes they bring. Some call for fresh basil and I don’t like that either for the same reason. This is not a sauce that needs grated cheese–it dulls the flavors a good bit–but go ahead if you must. Who am I to argue with Parmigiano- Reggiano?
No, to my mind, the perfect puttanesca is nothing more than good diced tomatoes, rough-chopped olives, a splash of capers, a shock of garlic and a few anchovy fillets melting in a bit of good olive oil. A liberal shake of crushed red pepper and maybe a handful of fresh parsley if you have some. That’s it. That’s all you need.
Some recipes suggest adding canned tuna for protein, and I admit that I tried mine with hot Italian sausage (a food stuff that deserves its own rapturous blog post), but honestly, I prefer it without. The only unconventional ingredient I sometimes include is artichoke hearts because that sweetly-bitter thing they have marries really well with the salt and spice already living together in sin.
Which brings us to the name. Puttan is Italian for “Lady of the Evening,” and the sauce is said to have originated from the dry pantries of such women after particularly hungry-making, uh, sessions.
I love this. I love that this stuff is connected so brazenly and unapologetically to the body and to lust and satiety of many kinds.
And maybe because of this, it’s the first meal I made for Paul when we started dating almost nine years ago. It has remained a never-fail staple and every time I’ve made it, up to and including tonight, he goes back for seconds. Thirds.
God, it’s so good.
What’s your seduction meal? Here’s mine.
Pasta alla Puttanesca
1 lb pasta (Paul prefers spaghetti, but I think something heartier like ziti or penne or even shells works better.)
28 oz. diced tomatoes (you can use crushed or a combo if you like, depending on your texture preference. I like mine chunky.)
1 tbsp olive oil
3/4 cup roughly chopped, good olives
1 tbsp capers (the little ones pack the best salty punch)
1-3 anchovy fillets (or 1/2 tsp of paste if you prefer)
3 large cloves of garlic, chopped
1 handful chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (adjust according to your spice tolerance)
Heat oil over medium-high heat and add anchovies. Cook until they melt into the oil. Smoosh them with a wooden spoon a bit. Add garlic and red pepper toss around for a minute. Don’t let it burn.
Add olives and capers and cook for another minute.
Add tomatoes and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer fifteen or so minutes. You can add a little water if you want.
Throw in parsley
Serve over al dente pasta.
Share some crusty bread and a bottle of red table wine. Nothing fancy. You’ll love it and it will love you back.