The Lessons of Puttanesca

Danielle Oteri

by Danielle Oteri on July 1, 2011

Every time I make puttanesca sauce, I think of the transvestite prostitutes I befriended in Florence and wonder how they are doing.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Beers

It was a long time ago, the summer of 1997 to be precise, and I was taking a painting class in Florence, Italy. I was like a newborn puppy opening her eyes for the first time. After landing in Rome, I recall exiting the airport and immediately being struck by the sight of a palm tree.

“You’re in Rome and you’re impressed by a palm tree?” asked one of my newfound traveling buddies dryly. “Haven’t you at least been to Florida? Sea World?” Nope. The farthest I had been away from New York was New Jersey.

Florence was the perfect realization of everything I imagined Italy to be: cobblestone streets, ancient buildings, mouth-watering food, zooming Vespas, and strong coffee. Never before had the past felt so present. The light muddled by pollution was just the perfect sepia hue for looking at Renaissance artwork. I’d wake upon hearing church bells echoing through the streets and alleys. I was impressed by the idea that the world was so much older that I have thought it to be growing up in American suburbia, as were the souls of people shopping at the vegetable market below my bedroom window.

Among them was a group of large, burly men, dressed like not so attractive women, who worked the nearest corner from midnight to sunrise. My roommates and I called them simply “the putanas.” Their clientele was steady and shockingly normal in appearance.

The putanas were as much a part of Via Montebello as the family that sold fried food from a window stall, or the man in charge of the gelateria. One putana helped me jiggle the ancient copper key that was as green as the Statue of Liberty and open the 12-foot wooden doors to my pensione one late night. In the early morning, the putanas would be doing their shopping at the market, (the end of their work day), and taught me how in Italy you never touch the fruit and vegetables yourself. That privilege was reserved for the seller who took the task very seriously and would never disgrace his stall by passing a bad peach off on you.

The putanas became a reliable presence every night on the corner around 11:00 pm and it was sort of fun to sit in my large window, drink Chianti wine, and listen to the sound of their gossip and trash talk in Italian.

On my last night in Florence, the painting class assembled at a small trattoria for dinner where pitchers of red and white wine never seemed to empty no matter how many glasses we consumed. At 19 years old, I had little experience with my own limits, and so I got very, very drunk. So drunk, in fact, that after walking the walls over the Arno in heels singing a Spice Girls song, I became ill and decorated the corner.

If only that were the end of the story.

I climbed the five floors to my room, flung open the heavy shutters of the corner window so I could take in one last look at the Duomo at night and cool my sweaty forehead. Still a little drunk, I was struck with the realization that the putanas would soon be out and I had effectively ruined business on that particular corner. From my window, I issued an apology like a rooster, yelling “Mi dispiace, putane!” through the stone streets of the medieval city with all the class and grace of an underage American student studying abroad.

The legend of puttanesca sauce is that it can be put together quickly by ladies of the night who have little time to eat before the brothel opens. Just a few crushed tomatoes, some anchovies, capers, garlic, hot peppers, and olives—all things that are likely to be in a Italian pantry—make a fragrant hot and sour sauce to pour over pasta. It’s in my regular rotation, especially when it’s very cold or very hot outside. Lost in my thoughts as I often am when cooking, I’ll grab a pinch of Calabrian pepper flakes from the jar next to my stove and inevitably think of the putana who helped me in the vegetable market and wonder if he ever had olives and capers in his mesh bag.

I learned more on that first trip abroad than just how to drink in moderation. Our painting professor told us that upon returning home we would find that we had fundamentally changed. Friends and family would ask about our trip, but they would only want to listen for five or ten minutes and then move on to more banal conversations. We should not be offended by their quick boredom with our travel stories or hold a grudge. While painting, traveling and eating in Italy, we had experienced subtle but deep changes. Don’t be surprised if you have trouble relating to your friends, Professor Kaish warned us, even after just being away for a month.

He described the physical state of our minds before this trip like a one-bedroom house: furnished, well worn and comfortable. But now, we might be surprised to find that there we had walked through a doorway in the house and discovered an empty room, maybe even an entire wing that we never knew existed. That space would ache to be filled with new ideas and experiences. We would now go about life with a humbler sense of our size in a wide, vast world.

I had no idea what lurked inside of me back then, but I could feel it stirring.

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