Pasta alla Puttanesca

Even though a friend assures me that we were pals back in Renaissance Italy (and yes, I’ve had the same odd flashes of memory), and everything I’ve heard about present-day Italy sounds delightful, almost everything I know about it comes through a decidedly American lens. A visit to Little Italy in New York City, a Hollywooden diet of mob movies and TV shows, food (some magnificent, some travesties of themselves) — all paint a picture that is surely full of gross distortions.

Even the music is distorted. Outside of the great Italian operas, most of the popular music I’ve been exposed to is decidedly cheesy and clichéd. Though frankly, there is some charm to it even then.

Take, for example, the first song with even semi-Italian lyrics I ever heard. I was six or seven, and we were sitting out on our little suburban patio grilling hamburgers on a warm summer evening, listening to a transistor radio. They played Rosemary Clooney singing “Mambo Italiano,” and I was instantly enraptured:

(That same evening’s broadcast introduced me to another delightful novelty song, “Loving You Has Made Me Bananas”:

But I digress.)

I’ve found covers of “Mambo Italiano” by Dean Martin, Perry Como, Bette Midler, and a techno-rap remix by the group Shaft. But my new fave is by a popular French actor, Gérard Darmon (and yes, that’s our link to yesterday’s post), singing with Muppet-like CGI creatures in a video made by two French directors, Steven Ada and Eric “Riko” Poulet, who work together as Les Sp6men:

The song itself had been a traditional, danceable folk-like song in Italy for ages (no one knows who actually wrote it, and there were many versions of the song), but it was an American, Bob Merrill, who in 1954 put it to paper and gave it English lyrics, and it became a worldwide favorite. A prominent NYC disk jockey, Martin Block, refused to play the song because he deemed it objectionable and inappropriate — “mambo,” you see, was code for sexual intercourse — which of course only heightened the song’s popularity.

Clooney’s triumph with “Mambo Italiano” came on the heels of her wildly successful 1951 single, “Come On-a My House,” another pseudo-Italian novelty song (and one she hated passionately). Here she is in a fun 1981 performance of it:

On the other side of the pond, as it were, is “Tu Vuo’ Fa’ L’Americano,” a song about an Italian guy who’s trying too hard to act like an American. It was a big hit for Italian big band leader Renato Carosone, but came to American consciousness in the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley (useless trivia: the movie’s complete title was actually The Mysterious Yearning Secretive Sad Lonely Troubled Confused Loving Musical Gifted Intelligent Beautiful Tender Sensitive Haunted Passionate Talented Mr. Ripley).

You’re wearing trousers with a tag on the back
and a cap with the visor turned up,
parading around Tuleto
like a lady’s man trying to be seen

You’re acting all American,
American, American,
listen here: who’s asking you to?

You want to be all trendy,
but if you drink “whiskey and soda”
you always end up sick!

You’re dancing rock and roll,
and playing baseball,
but where’d you get the money
for the Camel cigarettes?
Mommy’s handbag!

You’re acting all American,
American, American,
but you’re born in Italy, listen here:
there’s nothing you can do—
OK, Napoletano?
You’re acting all American,
American, American,
. . . whiskey, soda, and rock-and-roll!

Here, from the film, are Jude Law, Matt Damon, Fiorello, and the Guy Barker International Quintet:

And a marvelous version by Brilliant Dany:

I called this post “Pasta alla Puttanesca” after the celebrated Neapolitan dish, “pasta the way a whore would make it.” Many think the the name refers to the decadent sauce’s hot, spicy flavor and rapturous aroma. Others say that because the ingredients were so inexpensive, it was offered for free to prospective customers to entice them into houses of ill repute — or that the dish was so quickly made that prostitutes could prepare it between customers.

Extra-virgin olive oil. Finely chopped garlic. Peperoncini (hot Italian peppers). Anchovy fillets mashed with a fork. Tomatoes, of course. Capers (in vinegar), chopped. Sliced black olives, preferably imported. A little wine, a little parsley, a little basil. That’s all. It’s intoxicatingly good.

But all I know of it is its made-in-America version. I hope it’s authentic, but it may be just as Americanized as “Mambo Italiano” or “Come On-a My House.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. . . .


~ by Craig R. Smith on 11 September 2007.

4 Responses to “Pasta alla Puttanesca”

  1. My mate Wiki says:

    To understand how this sauce came to get its name, one must consider the 1950s when brothels in Italy were state-owned. They were known as case chiuse or ‘closed houses’ because the shutters had to be kept permanently closed to avoid offending the sensibilities of neighbors or innocent passers-by. Conscientious Italian housewives usually shop at the local market every day to buy fresh food, but the ‘civil servants’ were only allowed one day per week for shopping, and their time was valuable. Their speciality became a sauce made quickly from odds and ends in the larder.

    At our new favourite haunt, the Terminus Hotel they do a pizza called the “Terminesca” which is wicked . . . and for some Australo-Italian musical kitsch:

  2. I spent the last week of this project (for me) wondering how I was going to fit “Mambo Italiano” in. But I didn’t write about it, as all I could come up with was, “I love this cheesy song.” You’ve done a fine job.

  3. Mrs. S: Oh, to sing and follow the bouncing ball first thing in the morning!

  4. Loving You Has Made me Bananas? The Pupini Sisters? This post was informative and fun.

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