A Wine to Match Spaghetti alla puttanesca

San Marzano tomatoes
Many Neapolitan dishes feature San Marzanos, the sauce tomato par excellence.

Jeremy Parzen’s well researched post on the etymology of “sugo alla puttanesca” (“whoreish sauce”) is so good that that I’ll skip the colorful story and focus in on the ingredients and wines to match this Neapolitan classic. Like many Neapolitan dishes, puttanesca features the bright, and in my opinion, unmatched flavor of San Marzano tomatoes. A few additional ingredients such as olives, capers, salt-cured anchovies, garlic, and chili flakes are added to the San Marzano tomatoes to create an aromatic and strongly-flavored dish.

With so few ingredients, spend some extra cash for salt-packed anchovies and capers, and use high-quality olives. You will be able to taste the higher quality in the finished dish, and it’s worth it. My other piece of advice is to practice good mise-en-place by having your ingredients prepped and ready to go. The goal is to bring out the flavor of the tomatoes by cooking them for only a short time over high heat, so you should start to assemble the sauce at the same time as the water is coming to a boil for the spaghetti (or vermicelli as is common in Naples).

Lidia Bastianich, in her book “Lidia’s Italy,” also recommends cooking this type of sauce “in a large skillet over a hot fire, at the same time as the pasta cooks al dente.” This will help allow you to heat the sauce quickly while controlling its consistency. Finally, Lidia adds that “pasta in Naples defines the term ‘cooked al dente’ and that “no city is more in tune with the texture of cooked pasta,” so you really want to be able to focus on the flavors and textures that are happening in a very short (about 10 minute) period of time.

Arthur Schwartz, in his book “Naples at Table,” says that “there is an old Neapolitan habit of not draining pasta in a colander at all, but lifting it out of the pot with a fork,” which is done to preserve some of the starchy, salted water which can be used to loosen a sauce that has gotten too thick. However, this is unnecessary in the case of puttanesca. Instead, I like the technique demonstrated in this video by Mark Bittmann where he drains the pasta water into the serving bowl, thereby warming the bowl which keeps the pasta warm while serving. One final thought: skip the grated cheese and sprinkle on some freshly chopped parsley instead.

wines to match spaghetti puttanesca
Greco from Molise and Aglianico from Basilicata are excellent partners to spaghetti alla puttanesca.

I thought that a dry, earthy, and higher-acid red was necessary to stand up to all of the strong flavors of tomato, garlic, and cured black olives. My first instinct was to try some dry, but lighter-styled, Campanian reds based on the piedirosso grape, such as the Feudi di San Gregorio Trigaio, but a wine from Basilicata caught my eye and I went for it. The Macarico Aglianico del Vulture “Macari” 2006 was rich and delicious and unexpectedly polished, and I found it to be almost too good for such a rustic and pungent dish. It seemed like it would have been more at home with roasted lamb or goat. So we went back to a dry white we had been drinking earlier in the evening, a 2008 Greco Terre Degli Osci (IGT) from Cantine Borgo di Colloredo from Molise. Greco is a prized varietal in neighboring Campania and is known for its grapey character. This Greco was dry but had almost a rich texture that nicely countered the spicy heat in our puttanesca. This is another dish where I would also suggest a Dry Fizzy Red like Gragnano.

posted on February 22 2010 by jesse

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