This dish, the story goes, was popularized in Naples, where the women of the night used its aroma to lure men into the brothel. Puttanesca by that name is fairly new—dating only to the mid-twentieth century, but the dish itself goes back much farther, likely at least to the nineteenth century. In fact, a near-exact version of the dish (missing tomato) appears in Ippolito Cavalcanti’s Cucina teorico-practica as vermicelli with oil, anchovies, olives, capers, and parsley. Given that the book also contains the first mentions of pasta being sauced with tomato, it’s not much of a leap to puttanesca.
The briny, garlic-forward aroma of the sauce is certainly enough to lure anyone, anywhere, even against better judgment. To me, the flavor of Naples is puttanesca, a true assault of pungency and salinity that is as outspoken and frenetic as the city itself. Naples is not a place you go to relax, and puttanesca is not a pasta you serve to folks looking for an innocuous taste of Italy.
In that spirit, my take on the dish is meant to showcase the intensity of each ingredient, rather than cooking them into submission.
- To make the sauce, place a heavy sauce pot or Dutch oven over low heat. Add the olive oil and garlic and gently cook until aromatic but without color, 10 to 15 seconds.
- Add the anchovies and stir to incorporate. Cook, stirring, until they start to dissolve into the oil, about 30 seconds.
- Add the chile flakes, followed by the tomato paste. Cook, stirring constantly, until the oil takes on a reddish hue, 30 to 45 seconds.
- Add the tomatoes and their juice and stir to incorporate. Turn the heat up to medium-low and cook at a slow simmer until the rawness of the tomatoes is cooked out and the flavors have melded, 30 to 45 minutes. You are not looking to reduce the sauce.
- Remove from the heat and add the olives and capers and stir to incorporate. Season with salt q.b. (Go easy, as olives, anchovies, and capers provide a lot of salinity.)
- Measure out 540g / 2¼ cups sauce and set aside. Transfer the remainder to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for another use.
- To finish, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Generously salt the water.
- Add the spaghetti to the water and cook for 5 to 8 minutes, until al dente.
- While the pasta is cooking, place a large sauté pan over low heat. Add the sauce.
- Using tongs or a pasta basket, remove the pasta from the pot and transfer to the sauté pan. Turn the heat up to medium. Toss for 1 to 2 minutes to marry the pasta and the sauce. If the sauce begins to tighten, add a splash of pasta cooking water to loosen. When the pasta is properly married, it will cling to the sauce and have a glossy sheen.
- Divide the pasta into bowls.