The Sordid Story of Puttanesca, the Prostitute Pasta Sauce

Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Prostitution has different connotations around the world, but there's only one place where it's inspired a sauce.

That place is Italy and the stuff 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. It's made by combining anchovies, capers, olives, and optional ingredients like garlic, red pepper flakes, chile peppers, and tomatoes into a truly tasty gravy.

To find out how this strangely named dish came to be, we hunted down a pair of Italian historians. They couldn't offer us any spaghetti smoking guns, but below are their educated guesses about its origins, plus a recipe from Thrillist's in-house food-porn star, Perry Santanachote. Next time you have a dinner party, serve your sauce with a story!

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 stuff 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 wholesome, disgusting, and very bogus. 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.

It probably had more to do with the "aromatics"

“I think the name has more to do with 'aromatics.' There's an ancient Roman history of exploring aromatics. An honest Italian would tell you it's named for those pungent aromas,” says Segan, with several pauses for emphasis and a wink so strong it could be felt via telephone.

Her anecdote doesn't exactly qualify as a definitive background story, but it isn't too far-fetched to say that the powerful mix of anchovies, olives, and capers might have something in common with the scent of a mid-century Italian prostitute.

Despite uncertain origins, it's still damn good on spaghetti

Tebben didn't have much to offer in terms of suggestive origin anecdotes, but she did have a simple recipe for us. “At least the ingredients are not up for debate: anchovies, capers, olives, and red pepper flakes for spice.”

Segan added that tomatoes, garlic, and chile peppers can make an appearance, but that a truly down-and-out prostitute would add a sea rock from the coastline instead of anchovies. This would offer a similarly briny flavor to a pot of boiling water.

Taking their suggestions (except for the stone part), here is our resident chef Perry's recipe!

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Puttanesca Sauce Recipe

Total Time: 50-60 minutes
Yield: 4-6 servings

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 8 anchovy fillets packed in oil
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, drained
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • ½ cup pitted olives
  • ¼ cup drained capers
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Warm oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add garlic and anchovies; cook until garlic is lightly golden and anchovies melt into the oil, 3-4 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add tomatoes and crush them with a fork or wooden spoon. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Raise heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes break down and mixture becomes saucy, about 10 minutes.
  • Stir in olives, capers, basil, and red pepper flakes, reduce heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until it thickens, about 30 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and stir in lemon zest. Season again with salt and pepper to taste. Note: When cooking pasta, reserve some of the water to thin out the puttanesca as needed before serving.