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HOW MANY times have you been to an Italian restaurant and wondered what the melodic names on the menu meant? What is so Arabesque about an arrabbiata? Who is the Alfredo or the Norma immortalised in the popular pasta sauces? And what does a puttana ('whore') have to do with the puttanesca sauce? Let us get to the bottom of the name game.
Italian Chefs love to joke that their Indian patrons are collectively in love with the Arrabiatta. One of the simplest sauces to make, the ingredients being tomatoes, red chillies, garlic and olive oil (Parmesan cheese and onions may be added) and penne being the pasta of choice, it is named after the Italian word that means 'angry'.
The reference obviously is to the heat of the red chillies – they should be as hot as an angry young man – so Italians wonder why Indians ask for chilli flakes when they are served arrabiatta. Fra Diavolo ('brother devil') is the other name that is popular for chilli hot sauces.
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca entered Italian menus only in the 1960s or the 1970s, and an Italian journalist, Annarita Cuomo, ascribes its creation to Sandro Petti, owner of a popular restaurant and watering hole named Rancio Fellone, in the 1950s.
The pasta dish made with spaghetti infused with a sauce of tomatoes, garlic, olives and capers, and flavoured with anchovies (in Lazio), owes its name to the fact that it is made in the garbage style (puttana also means 'garbage') with leftovers in the kitchen, which is how Petti is said to have done it when a bunch of hungry guests came in at a late hour and he was without any meats in the kitchen. How does the 'whore' come into the scene? According to another etymological theory, puttanesca gets its name because making it is so simple that even a prostitute can cook it in between servicing two clients.
Another post-World War II pasta preparation that owes its worldwide popularity to the American soldiers stationed in Italy is the Carbonara. The sauce is made with bacon (it could be guanciale or pork cheeks or pancetta, which is cured pork belly meat), eggs, cheese (Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano) and black pepper, but the name has nothing to do with any of ingredients.
The word 'carbonara' originates from the Italian 'carbonaro' (charcoal burner). Italian food historian Anna Gossetti Della Salda believes the dish owes its name to the fact that it was invented by charcoal workers. But the combination of bacon and eggs has convinced others that there's an American hand in it.
American soldiers, according to this theory, were stationed in Rome, and they supplied its residents with bacon and eggs, so the Carbonara's roots are in Rome. And its name may be a tribute to the secret society, Carbonari ('charcoal men'), which worked towards the unification of Italy and whose members included the two fathers of the nation, Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, and the English poet, Lord Byron.
One of the most intriguing names for a sauce is the Marinara. How can a 'mariner's' sauce not have fish and seafood, but as Mario Batali reminds us, it is a basic tomato sauce (the tomato of choice being the San Marzano) – "If you add chilli flakes, you have arrabbiata; if you add anchovies, chilli flakes, olives and capers, you have puttanesca." The ingredients of the standard mariner's sauce are tomatoes, garlic, onions and basil. So where is the link with the lion-hearted seafarers who opened up the world?
The sauce is said to have been invented in the mid-1500s by cooks on board the Neapolitan ships that circumnavigated the contemporary world. The high acid content of tomatoes, which were introduced from the Americas into Italy by the Spaniards, made them ideal for sauces and stews on long sea journeys. The other theory about the popular sauce is that it used to be prepared by the wives of the mariners when they returned home safely. It doesn't have many takers.
Interestingly, Lo Scalco alla Moderna (The Modern Steward) was the first Italian cookbook to carry a recipe for tomato sauce. Written by Antonio Latini, who was the steward of the first minister to the Spanish Viceroy of Naples, the cookbook was published in two volumes in 1692 and 1694, much after the marinara sauce became popular.
Guess the origin of the word 'pesto' used to describe my favourite pasta sauce made with fresh basil leaves, pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano and olive oil? It goes back to the Genoese word for pound or crush, ‘pesta’, which, incidentally, is also the root of the English word 'pestle'. Ideally, pesto sauce should be made with mortar and pestle. It was the famous Italian-American writer and professor of English Literature, Angelo Pellegrini, who popularised the sauce in America. His recipe for it was first published in Sunset magazine in 1946.
Let us now get to the bottom of the Pasta alla Norma, the Sicilian classic made with the tubular penne or rigatoni pasta, tomatoes, fried eggplant, ricotta cheese and fresh basil. Norma was a lyrical opera written by the highly talented Italian composer, Vincenzo Bellini, who died at 33 but left quite a mark on music lovers. One of them was the Chef who invented the dish in Catania, a Sicilian city at the foot of Mount Etna.
Finally, the Alfredo sauce. The simplest sauce in the repertoire of Italian pasta Chefs, it has just two components, butter and Parmigiano Reggiano, and goes best with the ribbon-like fettucine pasta. It gets its name from Alfredo di Lilio, the Roman restaurateur who is credited with inventing the Fettucine all'Alfredo in 1908. Alfredo's patrons included Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, so his international fame was to be expected. In Italy, however, the dish is now better known as Fettucine al Burro, but Italian restaurants in America have assured Alfredo his piece of immortality.
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Sourish Bhattacharyya, co-founder of the Delhi Gourmet Club, is a freelance writer, editorial consultant, food columnist, restaurant critic and blogger. He has contributed regularly to the Mumbai Mirror, Times Life, BBC Good Food, Travel & many more publications. Nothing is dearer to him than the joy of writing, which he blends with his passion for food.