Pasta alla Puttanesca – fork holding up spaghetti in tomato sauce, a black olive and capers.
Photo: katrinshine via Adobe Stock

The Mysterious Origins of Italy's 'Whore's Pasta'

Spaghetti alla puttanesca roughly translates to "whore's pasta" – but no one can agree on why.
Giorgia Cannarella
Bologna, IT
October 20, 2021, 8:43am

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

Sometime in 2014, your dad’s favourite TV chef posted a recipe online. The dish was spaghetti alla puttanesca, a classic Neopolitan pasta dish. This August, that same chef, Nigella Lawson, renamed her version of the dish from “slut’s spaghetti” (the Italian name loosely translates as “whore’s spaghetti”) to something more TV chef-friendly: “slattern spaghetti”.

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This didn’t go down well with the Italian conservative daily Il Corriere della Sera, which accused Lawson of over-the-top political correctness, misquoting her as saying the dish’s name was “offensive”. After Lawson called the paper out, they modified the piece to make it clear the cook didn’t want to cancel the dish’s name entirely, but rather no longer use that translation herself.

In her updated blog, Lawson writes that the name change was inspired by a Twitter exchange with user Jim Hewitt, who said the recipe reminded him of “those days when my mum […] cooked dinner using whatever was in the cupboard”, adding, “She would say: ‘Hush. I'm slatterning!’”

The recipe – made with pantry ingredients of anchovies, tomatoes, olives, capers and garlic – is in fact perfect for a lazy dinner. However, the word “slattern” doesn’t exactly mean lazy; it means “untidy, dirty woman”, and many dictionaries cite it as a synonym of slut. Point being: given the negative connotations attached to all of these words, it’s not that clear why one is much better than the other – or why the dish came to be associated with these kinds of words in the first place.

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According to Luca Cesari, writer and author of The History of Pasta in Ten Dishes, the recipe’s origins are murky. To Cesari’s knowledge, the recipe was first described in cookbooks in the 1950s and 60s, although references to pasta sauces featuring olives, capers and anchovies (without tomato) can be found from towards the beginning of the century.

“It’s certainly a recent recipe, but I can't tell you much more about it than the urban legends I found on the web,” said Cesari.

According to the newspaper Napoli Today, some say puttanesca was invented by a brothel owner just outside of Rome; others by a brothel owner in Naples’ Spanish Quarter; others that its name is a reference to the green, red and purple of the sauce, all colours of underwear worn by women working at these brothels; and others still that it was invented by a sex worker named Yvette la Francese, who named it after her trade.

But there are a couple of problems with this brothel theory. First off, the ingredients are so common and easy to assemble that its supposedly colourful origins seem a little far-fetched. For example, in the 19th century book Cucina Teorico-Pratica (Theoretical-Practical Cuisine) by Ippolito Cavalcanti, there’s a mention of vermicelli with capers, olives and anchovies, which is considered as one foundation of the modern Neapolitan culinary tradition.

Another point of suspicion is the timing of when the name first appears. The earliest reference to puttanesca sauce I could find was in a 1932 food and wine guide published by the Italian tourism organisation Touring Club. But in this book, the dish is named maccheroni alla marinara.

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The first mention of the name puttanesca that I could find in print appears in the 1961 novel The Mortal Wound by Raffaele La Capria, where it’s actually described as a Sicilian dish. Italy banned brothels in 1958, three years before the book was published – and while it’s possible that the name had been popularised by that point but never printed, it also doesn’t exactly bode well.

The most recent hypotheses about the origin of the name lead us to Ischia, a gorgeous Mediterranean island off the coast of Naples. The 1977 book La Cucina Napoletana (Neapolitan Cuisine), by Jeanne Carola Francesconi, attributes the invention of the dish to a local painter named Eduardo Colucci, who would often invite friends over to his native island and make them his speciality, maccheroni alla puttanesca. 

A local newspaper article from 2005 claims the sauce was actually created in the 1950s by Colucci’s nephew, the architect and Ischia jet setter Sandro Petti. He used to own the restaurant Il Rancio Fellone, and said that one night he improvised a quick dinner for his guests by throwing together some “random shit” – or “una puttanata”, as you’d say in Italian, a common expression that literally translates to “a whore’s thing or action”. This theory is also supported by food writer Jeremy Parzen.

The expression “puttanata” is not exactly an outlier in the Italian language – many Italian swear words refer to women and sex work, or to women’s genitals. While that kind of language is increasingly seen as dated in English, those discussions are only just starting in Italy. While Italian feminists now use translations of English words to refer to sex work in a non-stigmatising way, most expressions referring to sex work are negative, and still very common in people’s vocabulary.

That point brings us back to Nigella Lawson’s renaming of the dish – understandable to those English speakers who believe we shouldn’t be using the term “slut” where we can avoid it. What it doesn’t do – and what, it seems, we’ll potentially never be able to do – is clear up exactly why this humble pasta dish was ever called that in the first place.