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Don’t be put off by the jocular name of this popular, summery southern Italian pasta dish, which, like many ‘traditional’ Italian recipes, was invented more recently than many people assume: the first written reference to it, in a novel by Neapolitan writer Raffaele La Capria, dates from 1961. The term ‘alla puttanesca’ is more affectionate than derogatory, referring to the fact that the sauce is a combination of classic cupboard ingredients – anchovies, fresh or preserved tomatoes, capers and olives – which are an easy, lazy fallback when you can’t be bothered to go food shopping. So the best translation of the name would not be “hooker’s linguine”, but “thrown-together-at-the-last-minute linguine”.
There’s nothing fancy about Gennaro Russo’s version of the dish: why mess with a classic? But La Sponda’s executive chef is keen to point out that, however simple it may seem, sourcing the right ingredients is the key to its success.
It’s no good using watery salad tomatoes to make the sugo; they have to be intense, flavoursome small red varieties like datterino, piennolo or, at a push, San Marzano. The capers – ideally from Pantelleria or Salina islands – should be preserved in salt, not brine. Russet-brown Taggiasca olives from Liguria should be used, not those tasteless, pitted black olives that are often used in pizza toppings. As for the anchovy fillets, they can be preserved in olive oil or salt, as long as they’re good ones (for example, Spanish Cantabrian anchovies). True Italian gourmets tend to prefer the salted variety – which, like salted capers, need to be well rinsed in water before use. If you haven’t had time to do this thoroughly, compensate by adding less salt to the sauce and/or the pasta cooking water.
And of course, you can always do spaghetti alla puttanesca rather than linguine, or even use ‘short’ pasta shapes like penne, fusilli or conchiglie... it’s a question of personal preference.
400g linguine pasta
350g tomatoes (preferably datterino or piennolo)
6 anchovy fillets
150g small black olives (preferably Taggiasca)
80g salted Italian capers
2 garlic cloves
120ml (half a cup) extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Put a large pan of water on the stove for the pasta; be generous with the amount of water. When it has come to the boil, add the pasta. In a separate, copper pan, heat up the olive oil and fry the two unpeeled, gently crushed garlic cloves until they are pale golden brown. Add the capers, anchovies, and olives, and toss them in the pan, turning with a wooden spoon, until the anchovies have dissolved. Add the tomatoes, toss briefly, then add a ladleful of the pasta-cooking water to the pan. Continue cooking on a medium heat for around five minutes.
Take the pasta off the boil when still al dente, reserving another cup of cooking water before you drain it. Once the pasta is drained, add it to the sauce in the copper pan, with a little cooking water to achieve the right consistency, neither too dense nor too liquid. Cook for another couple of minutes, maximum, making sure the linguine are well-coated with sauce. Then serve.