tomato, caper, kalamata olive, anchovy, garlic, spaghetti 17.5

There are many theories about sugo alla puttanesca’s origin, ranging from ladies of the night to lost sailors. Through my research, I have found the roots of the dish. 

It turns out that sugo alla puttanesca was invented relatively recently in the 1950s by Ischian jet-setter Sandro Petti, who was part owner of Ischia’s famed restaurant, Rancio Fellone. He was asked by his friends to cook for them one evening, but Petti found his pantry bare. When he told his friends that he had nothing to cook for them they responded by saying “just make us a ‘puttanata qualsiasi,’” – in other words, “just make us whatever rubbish” you may have on hand. 

All Petti had was several tomatoes, a couple of capers, a few anchovies and some olives that he used to make a sauce tossed with spaghetti. The dish went over so well with his friends that Petti decided to include it on the menu the next evening at his restaurant. He felt spaghetti alla puttanata didn’t sound quite right so he called it spaghetti alla puttanesca. Petti was on to something that fateful night when his friends asked him to cook. He, in essence, created the sauce of puttanesca as we know it today.

OR another take on puttanesca’s origins…

The place is Italy and the sauce is puttanesca, which translates roughly to “lady of the night.” Some sources call the sauce Roman (The Oxford Companion to Italian Food), but it’s more commonly associated with Naples – the country’s third-largest city, the birthplace of pizza, and home of sirens so seductive that the only way to resist them is to fill your ears with beeswax and be tied to the mast of a ship. Puttanesca is made by combining anchovies, capers, olives, and optional ingredients like garlic, red pepper flakes, chile peppers, and tomatoes into a truly tasty gravy (sauce).

When the sauce was invented, prostitution was one of few options.

Most Italian sauces date back to the 1700s, but puttanesca is relatively new school according to food historian and Italian cookbook author Francine Segan. She places the creation sometime in the last 60 or 70 years, timed with a particularly turbulent time in Italian history – World War II.

These days young women have plenty of career options, but during wartime in Italy there weren’t nearly as many internships available. Women resorted to “working the night shift.” Although trading sex for money wasn’t considered noble, it wasn’t out of the ordinary and actually might have inspired a sense of Italian machismo pride.

“It was just a part of their vernacular, it didn’t have as much of a negative connotation. After World War II, you had Sophia Loren movies about it. Italian men were like, ‘our gorgeous, terrific women had to resort to prostitution,’” says Segan.

The name isn’t because ladies needed to cook something between clients.

“I can tell you that there is a lot of disagreement about the origins, and the authorities on Italian food seem to be wary of making a definitive statement about it, which tells me that it’s probably impossible to pin down,” says Maryann Tebben, head of the Center for Food Studies at Bard College and author of Sauces: A Global History.

Some corners of the Internet will tell you that puttanesca earned its name because prostitutes could easily cook it up between clients, which sounds very bogus and not wholesome at all. If speed was the goal, a hot sauce probably wasn’t the move.

“They would’ve done other things, like just chopping a tomato and tossing in a handful of olives, capers, and a sprinkle of oregano. You don’t even need to cook those tomatoes,” says Segan.