How to Make Pasta alla Puttanesca

Spaghetti Puttanesca in bowl and a stack of bowls underneath
Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images
  • 13 mins
  • Prep: 5 mins,
  • Cook: 8 mins
  • Yield: 2 to 3 servings
Ratings (6)

Puttanesca, a traditional pasta sauce originating in Southern Italy (the exact origins are unclear, though it's most associated with the area around Naples) and usually served with spaghetti, is a flavorful, slightly spicy tomato sauce with the pungent, pronounced flavors of olives, capers, and anchovy. Even if you are an avowed anchovy-hater, you should give this sauce a try: the anchovies melt away into the sauce and the final result does not taste "fishy," just bold, rich and complex. 

As for the somewhat scandalous name (puttanesca translates literally as "prostitute-style"), numerous theories abound as to its origins: some say it just refers to the fact that the sauce is spicy, others that ladies of the night used to make it in between clients or to attract more clients with its enticing smell. One blogger has done some research into its origins, however, and his findings seem to indicate that it has nothing to do with prostitutes at all , but rather refers to the fact that a chef in Ischia's friends once asked him to cook up something, just some "puttanata" (translating loosely as something like "any old crap") and so he threw together whatever he had on hand and that was it, the first "puttanesca" pasta. 

Whatever the origin, it's delicious, easy, and quick.  In fact, you can make this sauce in just about the time it tastes to cook a potful of spaghetti, and it calls for ingredients that most will have on hand in their pantry, making it a great weeknight meal. 

What You'll Need

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced (about 1 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried red chile pepper flakes (or 1-2 dried red peperoncini, crushed between your fingers, or even fresh red chile peppers)
  • 2 teaspoons finely minced anchovy (about 4 boned anchovy fillets) or anchovy paste (in a tube)
  • 1 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes, drained and tomato juice reserved, or 3 to 4 ripe plum tomatoes, cored and diced
  • 1/2 cup oil- or brine-packed black olives (such as Gaeta, Kalamata, Ligurian/ Taggiasca, Niçoise, or Alfonso - do not use the mushy and practically flavorless canned black Mission olives)
  • 4 teaspoons salt- or vinegar-packed capers, rinsed well and drained (We prefer salt-packed capers as they retain much more of their fragrant flavor.)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves, for garnish
  • 1/2 pound spaghetti

How to Make It

  1. Place a large potful of water to boil over high heat for the pasta. When the water reaches a rolling boil, add about 1 tablespoon of coarse or Kosher salt. When the water returns to a rolling boil, add the pasta (usually spaghetti) and cook until al dente.
  2. Meanwhile, make the sauce: in a skillet over medium heat, heat the oil, garlic, chile pepper, and anchovy until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes. 
  1. Add the tomatoes, olives, and capers, bring to a simmer, then cover and let simmer over low heat until the pasta is ready. If the sauce seems too dry, add a bit of the reserved tomato juice. 
  2. When pasta is al dente, drain it well (reserving some of the cooking water) and return it to the pot. Add the sauce and chopped parsley and toss well to coat. If it's too dry, and some of the pasta cooking water. 
  3. Serve immediately,  with a full-bodied red wine, such as a Vesuvio Rosso.

NOTE: Traditional pasta alla puttanesca in Italy is not usually served with cheese (in fact Italians generally do not mix fish and cheese). Try, instead, adding a drizzle of a fruity extra-virgin olive oil to the sauce and pasta when tossing them together before serving.

Nutritional Guidelines (per serving)
Calories 231
Total Fat 8 g
Saturated Fat 1 g
Unsaturated Fat 5 g
Cholesterol 6 mg
Sodium 277 mg
Carbohydrates 31 g
Dietary Fiber 4 g
Protein 10 g
(The nutrition information on our recipes is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate. Individual results may vary.)