When Jenny noticed that I was making a pasta dish using penne she was surprised. We discussed the noodle and how it is so commonplace that it becomes boring. When one eats and cooks as much pasta as I do, why would I turn to penne for any particular dish? I think it comes down to two reasons: nostalgia and tradition. Before I went into cooking I had made a few trips to Italy with family members. I didn’t know where all the famous restaurants were back then, but what I did know was to find a place that was far from the city center/touristy areas. It was in those little trattorias where I would find perfectly executed yet everyday pasta dishes such as Penne alla Puttanesca. Needless to say, when Jenny tried the pasta she was pleasantly surprised.
The reason I originally fell in love with pasta dishes like this and Italian cooking in general is because when executed properly the dish is balanced. First you bite into an al dente noodle and you think it might be undercooked then as you move through the dish you realize it provides the perfect texture to keep things interesting. The noodle is lightly dressed so that it stands up as an equal to the sauce. The sauce is well thought out. It lightly dresses the noodle while somehow managing to still burst with flavor – which brings me to my next topic – Anchovies.
Poor anchovies, they get a bad rap when all they do is make the world a much more flavorful place. To me, using anchovies (especially in a dish like this) is like using salt, but better. Anchovies are a flavor enhancer. If you don’t like anchovies but can get past the initial smell (or whatever turns you off) and work them into this sauce with the rest of the ingredients I guarantee you won’t even know they are there. When you are eating this pasta all you will know is that there is something delicious that you can taste but you can’t quite put your tongue on it. Deliciousness? Umami? Well, it’s both in and it comes in the form of anchovies.
The foundation of puttanesca is garlic, capers, chilies, anchovies, and olives. These are all ingredients that pack a serious flavor punch and have a very long shelf life. I provide a recipe for a simple tomato sauce but if you have your own on hand this dish will take you as long to make the sauce as it does to cook the pasta. My small contribution to this classic is the use of Calabrian chilies as opposed to dry chili flakes, which add a little more kick and provide more depth of flavor. A jar of these chilies will go a long way, and if you like spice, you will find yourself using it in almost anything you decide to prepare at home. They only have the really large jars on amazon but you should be able to find something smaller at your local Italian market.