Taste Scene

Michael Devlin

Pasta alla – between obligations

Once, on a particularly memorable visit to Rome, I visited a small trattoria off the main drag, hidden away down a shadowy, cobbled street. I knew immediately that this was the place for me.

It was packed with locals, most of whom were smoking, vigorously gesticulating, eating, drinking and speaking at the top of their Roman voices – some were doing all of these things all at once!

More importantly though, the menu wasn’t in English and therefore, this wasn’t a tourist trap.


However, at a distinct disadvantage to my Roman counterparts, I have only a handful of words in Italian (although I can gesticulate with the best of them after a vino rosso or two) and therefore I hadn’t a clue what the scrawled paper menu offered.

This problem was doubly compounded when the waitress arrived and hadn’t a word of English. And yet, a hungry person will not stay hungry for long in the City of Light. Why? Because pasta is pasta in every language.

Actually, I don’t know if this is the case or not, but it’s the same in English and Italian. So there!

Without missing a beat I ordered my first pasta alla puttanesca with a side of vino rosso and set back to take in the scene.

If people watching is good when you’re on holiday (we all do it, right?), I am of the firm belief that Italian people watching is the tip of the top for entertainment.

Say for example, aliens arrived tomorrow and the first place they went to was Italy, they would surely conclude that earthlings communicate through a combination of vocalisations and hand gestures.

Sometimes single handed, sometimes with both, Italians are a sight to behold.


There are also deft touches to the chin, the nose, the ears, the elbows and coupled with brooding men and sultry women draping themselves across one another as they languidly picked at their food… for a newcomer on his virginal Italian adventure, this was like music for the eyes.

And so to the food…
My pasta puttanesca came out with fresh bread, olives and the decanter of red wine and I immediately set about wrecking my white shirt.

Actually, that big drip of wine was a genuine mistake, but one I had to thole for the rest of that day. The shame!

Yet I remember being astonished for a number of reasons.

The pasta (to the best of my memory it was conchiglie – or sea shells as they’re called in our house) seemed hard, or at least harder than I’d ever eaten before.

My first impression was that the waitress must be taking the mick out of the mick by serving raw pasta, but the more I ate, the more I came to enjoy the seemingly overly al dente nature of the shells. It was texture where it shouldn’t exist and it was wondrous.

Consequently, this is a practice I now practise at home, whenever we’re having pasta.

I’ve actually come to loath flaccid rigatoni or tagliatelle or farfalle without a good bite therein.

The second reason my gast had never been as flabbered, was the flavour of the sauce.

Having never had pasta puttanesca before, I’d no idea what the components were.

It was tomato-based, of course, but there was a distinct umami hint within its depths and just a little heat.

But, slurp and smack and wonder as I might at this savoury dish which was hitting all the right notes (and my shirt), I couldn’t put my finger on the elusive ingredient.

I knew there were olives and capers – I could see those – and I could taste the garlic, but there was something else, something wonderful that was slightly beyond my palate’s ken.

This was pre-smart-phone times (ah, the goode olde days), so I couldn’t Google the dish as I might now and since the waitress had no English and I had infinitely less Italian, I had to wait until the following day during a tour of St Peter’s before I could ask an American living in Rome what the puttanesca ingredients were.

Garlic, tomatoes, capers, black olives, chilli flakes and anchovies, I was informed. ANCHOVIES! Those were the culprits!

And yet I was more astonished as to the naming (and thus origin of the dish). Pucker up, buttercup…

Pasta alla puttanesca is Italian for pasta in the style of a prostitute. Who knew?!

Whether it was genuinely a favourite dish of the ladies of the night is unknown but the general theory goes, that pasta alla puttanesca can be quickly thrown together in-between other, let’s say… obligations. Hence the earlier allusion. Ahem.

Recipes abound for this dish and some claim various herbs and/or cheeses but so long as there are anchovies, I don’t think you can go far wrong.

Anyhoo, this is my own version of pasta puttanesca and be reassured, no-one was compromised in the making of this dish – not yet, anyway. Ahem again!

I won’t insult your intelligence on how to cook pasta but I will say, leave it good and al dente.

• enough pasta for two people, say 250g of whatever shape you fancy eating
• good glug of olive oil (at least two tbsps)
• 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
• 5 anchovy fillets, the ones that come in olive oil, roughly chopped
• good pinch of chilli flakes
• 1 tbsp of capers
• handful of black olives, chopped
• 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
• half tsp of honey
• salt and pepper
• chopped parsley or basil and/or parmesan for serving

Start by making the sauce. Add the oil to a large frying pan and, before adding any heat to the equation, add the sliced garlic. Increase the heat and slowly fry the garlic without colouring. This will probably take a minute or two.

Add the anchovies, olives and capers and sizzle for another minute, stirring all the while.

Dump in the tomatoes and the honey and give it a grinding of black pepper and a pinch of salt.

Turn to a light simmer and let it bubble away ti thicken, while you cook up the pasta.

When the pasta’s done, drain it, reserving a little cooking water and then dump all the pasta into the frying pan containing the sauce.

You might add a few tablespoons of the cooking liquor to loosen things up and then, check the seasoning and adjust.

Divide into bowls and top with chopped parsley or parmesan or basil – or a combination of all three.

Vino rosso is optional but recommended.

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