Cheap Eats:
Pasta Puttanesca

What’s in a name? Well, if you’re a food item, it might be anything from a description of your appearance to a regional or historical association to an expected reaction. For example, ladyfingers looked to someone like long, female digits—though in Britain and the U.S. this sobriquet identifies narrow strips of golden cake, while in India it refers to okra.

Imam bayildi, “the priest fainted,” suggests an anticipated reaction to a flavorful, oil-soaked eggplant dish. Xnipek, the name of a popular salsa in the Yucatán, means “dog snout,” which supposedly refers to the runny nose this fiery sauce engenders.

One of my favorite opening lines of an article (read so long ago that I couldn’t possibly track it down,) ran “Melba toasts the peachy singer.” And, indeed, names often signify that something was created for a famous individual, from anything Stroganoff to the popular Australian dessert, Pavlova.

Sylvester Graham, a promoter of natural eating, gave his name to the sweet, whole-grain crackers he invented. (Hard to think of Graham crackers as health food now.) Another healthy-eating advocate, J.H. Salisbury, a 19th-century English nutritionist, gave his name to a ground-beef patty that he hoped would reduce fat in people’s diets. And German chocolate cake is named for one of its major ingredients, Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate, which was itself named for its creator, an Englishman named Sam German. (The cake was invented in Texas in 1957.)

Delmonico steak and Delmonico potatoes both owe their names to New York’s first luxury restaurant, Delmonico’s, which the Delmonico family ran from 1835 to 1881. Two other famous dishes that came from this restaurant don’t bear its name, however. Eggs Benedict were named for regular patrons, Mr. and Mrs. LeGrand Benedict. Lobster Newburg was originally named Lobster Wenburg, after shipping magnate Ben Wenburg, until Wenburg got drunk and got into a fight at the restaurant. The proprietors then changed the name of the dish to Newburg.

Italian food is particularly rich in descriptive and associative names. Linguine, for example, means “little tongues,” mostaccioli means “small mustache,” fettuccine means “small ribbons,” penne means “quills, pens,” vermicelli means “little worms,” ravioli means “little turnips,” orecchiette means “little ears,” and spaghetti means “strings” or “cords.” But there are hundreds of pasta shapes, looking like (and named for) stars, butterflies, peapods, torches, seashells, and more.

It’s not just the pasta that gets identifying names, however. The dishes in which these pastas appear often let you know where the dishes originated, or with whom. Fettuccine Alfredo was invented by restaurateur Alfredo di Lelio at his restaurant in Rome. (And his is infinitely better than any of the knock-offs one finds anywhere else.) Pasta marinara was first popular with sailors, while the dish below tells us that ladies of the night preferred this spicy recipe. (Some say because it is quick, inexpensive, and good cold, if your dinner gets interrupted.)

This is a great pasta dish, especially if you like capers (which I do). It has a bit of a kick, but you can adjust the red pepper flakes up or down, as you wish. You may also wish to decorate the finished dish with fresh basil leaves or serve it with grated cheese. Note that the ratio of sauce to pasta is more authentically Italian than most Americans expect—that is, the pasta is still visible and the sauce is more of a flavoring, not the actual meal. But don’t worry, this sauce is powerfully flavorful, and too much of it would be overwhelming. Enjoy.

Pasta Puttanesca

¼ cup olive oil

4–6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 lbs. plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped (see Notes)

½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

3 Tbs. capers, drained

1 cup pitted black olives, sliced (see Notes)

¾ cup chicken broth

2–oz. can anchovy fillets, drained and chopped

2 tsp. dried basil

2 tsp. dried oregano

2 tsp. dried parsley

1 lb. spaghetti, cooked al dente

Heat the oil over medium heat in a saucepan big enough for all the ingredients. Cook the garlic for about one minute—just until it becomes fragrant, but not brown. Add the tomatoes, red pepper flakes, capers, olives, and broth. Turn heat up to medium high and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Cover, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 20 minutes. Remove the cover, stir in the anchovies, basil, oregano, and parsley, and simmer for another 25 minutes. Toss the pasta with the hot puttanesca sauce and serve.

Serves 4.


Life is short. While I do seed the tomatoes, if I’m making this for myself, I don’t peel them. You end up with little papery bits of skin in your sauce, but if there’s no one to impress, I would rather save myself the time.

Use flavorful olives if you can find them, rather than the blander, ordinary black olives.

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