Spaghetti alla puttanesca is a relatively new addition to Italian cuisine, emerging in Naples in the mid-20th century. Despite not being an old dish, its origins are still rather mysterious. Puttanesca literally means “in the style of a prostitute.” What does that mean exactly?
A popular theory says that the dish was a quick meal that sex workers could whip up between clients, but, as Thrillist points out, there are plenty of faster options than making one’s own sauce. Other theories look to the sauce’s ingredients: anchovies, capers, olives, tomatoes, and spices such as chili pepper, red pepper flakes, and garlic. Some say sex workers may have embraced these ingredients for their aphrodisiac or aromatic qualities, suggesting that the sauce’s powerful scent might have been used to lure in customers.
Then there’s the story that suggests sex workers had nothing to do with the creation of spaghetti alla puttanesca at all. A sauce that’s “in the style of a prostitute” might simply refer to a sauce that contains humble ingredients. That is the claim of chef Sandro Petti, who says he invented the dish sometime in the 1950s. The dish was born, so the story goes, one night when he had an influx of hungry customers, but not enough ingredients for a more complex sauce. The simple yet delightful combination of his paltry pantry contents was a hit.
We may never know the true origins of spaghetti alla puttanesca, but one thing is certain: While it may have humble beginnings, its one-two punch of umami-briny flavors and intense aromas of garlic and the sea has made it a modern classic throughout Naples and beyond.