The history of Spaghetti alla Puttanesca and where to eat it in Naples

Jun 16 2024, 16:03
No anchovies in the original version of this classic midnight spaghetti dish that everyone knows, but few are aware of its history and especially the origin of its name. So, here’s why it’s called puttanesca

In Naples, it's called "aulive e chiapparielle," elsewhere we call it "puttanesca." Olives, capers, oregano, parsley, a more or less cooked tomato depending on preferences, al dente spaghetti or linguine, and that's it. After garlic and oil, and perhaps tied with butter and anchovies, it’s one of the most popular recipes for a last-minute dinner or the classic midnight spaghetti, especially in summer, perhaps on a terrace: the preparation of the sauce takes the same time as cooking the pasta, the aroma is irresistible, and success is almost guaranteed (watch the salt though...).

The history of Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

But why "puttanesca"? While the origins of the dish are certainly Neapolitan, there are two schools of thought about the name. One version of the story suggests that it all began in the 1950s in Ischia, thanks to Sandro Petti, the architect of the island's Dolce Vita era and nephew of the painter Eduardo Colucci. Colucci, who had moved here with his brother in the previous decade, would host parties for his artist and entertainment world friends (like Luchino Visconti, Anna Magnani, Vittorio Gassman, and Carlo Carrà) on the terrace of his tiny summer residence, where he would often prepare vermicelli with olive and caper sauce, which he called "alla marinara," as Jeanne Caròla Francesconi recounts in "La Cucina Napoletana," a comprehensive collection of Campania regional recipes, published in '65.

Sandro Petti, a Roman by birth and adopted Ischian (who passed away at 95 in 2022), designed and refurbished villas for celebrities and popular nightclubs of the time, such as 'O Rangio Fellone, where artists like Mina and Peppino Di Capri performed. Petti, in one of many late-night gatherings, faced a hungry crowd of friends. As recounted by Neapolitan journalist Anna Maria Chiariello in the book "Lucio Battisti - Emozioni Ischitane": "Come on Sandro, it’s late and we’re hungry, where can we go, make us any rubbish.” So, the architect, who had a passion for cooking as well as the arts, served a steaming bowl of pasta alla … puttanata. That is, spaghetti with garlic, oil, tomatoes, olives, capers, and plenty of parsley. It was a hit. The bowl was wiped clean. “I still have it in my Roman villa,” Petti said, “it’s so large that it takes five kilos of spaghetti to cover the bottom.” The recipe made it onto the menu, and he named it puttanesca, finding it more palatable than puttanata, though it earned him a reprimand from Bishop Ernesto De Laurentis for the somewhat vulgar term. “It was me, not my uncle, who first made that sauce and named it puttanesca.”

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca in the Spanish Quarters

Another version suggests that puttanesca was born in the Spanish Quarters, in the brothels of the early 20th century. Either it was commonly offered to guests due to its ease of preparation, or because the vibrant colors of the sauce matched the flashy attire of the women. In any case, the original version did not include anchovies, which were later added in the Lazio variant from Gaeta. Today, it’s more of a home dish than a restaurant staple, making it rare on menus. But when it’s there, it’s truly good. Here’s where to eat it in Naples.

Where to eat Spaghetti alla Puttanesca in Naples

Osteria Donna Teresa

In Vomero, a cozy place with nine tables and a genuine family-run operation. The establishment has been around since 1913, from the original Donna Teresa, mother of 11 (and of Gigione, the current owner) and a masterful cook. Today, her tradition continues with a frequently changing menu recited by heart: ziti alla genovese, meatballs in sauce, fried anchovies, and occasionally a puttanesca with all the trimmings. Pair it with the house wine, of course.

Osteria Donna Teresa - via Michele Kerbaker, 58 - 081 5567070

Ieri, Oggi, Domani

Fresh fish on display, even for off-menu preparations, in a welcoming spot near the Central Station. Also offers pizzas in about twenty varieties, and among the appetizers, the peculiarity of the two "zizze" (mozzarella), one land and one sea (stuffed with Mazara red shrimp tartare, bergamot, and shrimp bisque). The kitchen honours the past but also experiments, always with an eye on the season. Hence, spaghetti alla puttanesca is usually available in summer. The wine list focuses on Campania wines.

Ieri, oggi, domani - via Nazionale, 6 - 081 206717 -

A Taverna do’ Re

Easily accessible by metro, close to Piazza del Plebiscito but also the port and island ferries, it’s an establishment with a very old history. Sitting at one of the outdoor tables or in the cozy indoor spaces, you can enjoy straightforward traditional seafood and land dishes, though there are occasional variations. Here, linguine are served with puttanesca sauce (fresh tomato, olives, and capers). They also serve pizza.

‘A Taverna do’ Re – supportico Fondo di Separazione, 2 – 081 5522424 –

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