When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, we really didn’t dine out that much. My family enjoyed such good food at home that the only reason for going to a restaurant was to give my mother and aunt a break from cooking. More often than not, the restaurants we chose were Italian. In fact, two of our favorites are still going strong in Brooklyn: Michael’s on Avenue R and Gargiulo’s in Coney Island. A third favorite, Patsy’s, continues to be popular in Manhattan. All three served then, as they still do, typical Neapolitan dishes that were similar to those we enjoyed at home but, at least in my aunt’s opinion, never quite as good.
In the early 50s, however, southern-Italian restaurants were being challenged by northern-Italian competitors. These new style establishments strove to distinguish themselves and, with some condescension, frowned on the heavy use of garlic, olive oil, peperoncino, and even dried pasta like spaghetti. Butter took the place of olive oil; cream sauces replaced tomato based ones; herbs like rosemary and thyme and spices like saffron and nutmeg lent more nuance than did basil or oregano. Southern dried pasta was replaced either by the fresh egg variety or by risottos, often finished with flair at tableside.
It’s always a pleasure to find serious, well-researched, and eloquently written cookbooks that, like those of Elizabeth David and Alice Waters, promote and celebrate seasonal cooking. Recently, I came upon such a cookbook: The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, authored by Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca.
Looking through the book’s summer section, I found a recipe for one of my favorite pastas: spaghetti alla puttanesca (spaghetti in the style of the prostitute). Although I’ve made this dish many times before, I was intrigued by the recipe’s instruction to make a fine mince of two of its main ingredients: the capers and half of the olives. I discovered that this simple step shifted the focus of the dish from the tomatoes and emphasized its olive and caper flavors, which was in line with the authors’ belief that true puttanesca is “not so much a tomato sauce with olives as an olive sauce with tomatoes.”
I adapted the book’s recipe to our tastes and used considerably more anchovies and capers than called for and opted for the stronger flavor of oil-cured black olives. Unable to find good tomatoes, I also substituted the canned San Marzano variety.
I must admit that this version of puttanesca was the best I’ve had and it made the perfect dish for a hot summer night’s dinner on the terrace.
Spaghetti Puttanesca (Adapted from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen by Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca)
3 tablespoons capers, drained and rinsed
½ cup oil-cured Moroccan-style black olives
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
2 small dried diavolino pepperoncini
8 anchovy fillets, chopped
1 28-ounce can of imported San Marzano tomatoes, drained and crushed
1 pound spaghetti
Directions Mince the capers together with half of the olives.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil, garlic, and peperoncino and sauté until the garlic just begins to turn a light gold. Be careful not to burn the garlic. Remove the garlic and the peperoncino.
Add the anchovies and sauté, stirring until they dissolve.
Add the minced capers and olives, followed by the tomatoes and whole olives.
Reduce the heat and simmer covered for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in well-salted boiling water following package directions for al dente.
About a minute before the pasta is finished cooking, using tongs transfer the pasta to the skillet and finish cooking the pasta in the sauce.