Pasta Puttanesca

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A classic Italian pasta sauce based on pantry items such as olives, capers, anchovies and canned tomatoes.

Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

Please welcome Hank as he shares his favorite pasta puttanesca, made with pantry staples! ~Elise

Of all the dishes I’ve cooked over the years, pasta puttanesca holds a special place in my heart. I’ve been making it regularly since the late 1980s, when I was a freshman in the dorms at SUNY Stony Brook. Puttanesca was the first “adult” meal I ever cooked by myself for myself; I’d done clunky versions of traditional “date night” dishes for girls before that, but this simple pasta sauce was my go-to meal after long, long days at track practice.

Puttanesca is the quintessential “I’m tired” meal, as it is almost entirely made up of pantry staples: canned tomato paste and crushed tomatoes, canned anchovies, jarred olives and capers. The only chopping required is a little bit of onion and as much garlic and parsley as you want. You turn the water on to cook the spaghetti, and by the time the pasta is cooked the sauce is ready. Done and drinking beer (or doing homework) in 30 minutes.

It was only later that I learned the origins of this sauce. I’d made it for a female friend who was Italian, and she said, “Oh, harlot’s sauce.” I might have snickered. She explained that the legend of this sauce was that it easy to prepare for anyone who works when markets were closed — and ladies of the evening certainly fit that bill.

So do newspaper reporters. In the years I worked as a journalist, working past 9 p.m. was the norm, not the exception. Puttanesca was always there for me when I got home, however, and in a half an hour I could throw myself down in front of the TV, watch ESPN or somesuch, and eat a home-cooked meal. All these years later, I still make puttanesca whenever I am tired or stressed. It’s one old habit I never want to break.

Pasta Puttanesca Recipe

  • Prep time: 10 minutes
  • Cook time: 30 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 4-6

Spaghetti is the normal pasta for this recipe, but any kind of pasta will be fine.


  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3-4 canned anchovies, chopped
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 2 Tbsp small (non-pariel) capers
  • 3/4 cup (95 g) pitted olives (black or green), roughly chopped
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • Salt
  • Olive oil for drizzling
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley


1 Sauté onions, anchovies, garlic: Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large, deep sauté pan. When the oil is hot, sauté the onions until they're soft and translucent, about 4-5 minutes.

While the onions are cooking, stir in the chopped anchovies along with some of the oil from the can.

Add the garlic and cook another minute.

2 Mix in the tomato paste and cook it for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.

3 Add the crushed tomatoes, oregano, chili pepper flakes, and olives. Turn the heat down to a gentle simmer.

4 Cook the spaghetti: Bring a large pot of salted water (5 quarts water, 2 Tbsp salt) to a boil. When you add the spaghetti to the boiling water to cook, add the capers to the sauce and continue to simmer it gently. Cook the pasta according to the package instructions, to al dente, cooked but still slightly firm.

5 Serve: Drain the pasta and put in a large bowl. Drizzle a little olive oil over the pasta and mix to combine.

Stir the parsley into the pasta sauce. Add some water into the sauce to thin it if it has become too thick.

Add a ladle's worth of sauce to the pasta and mix to combine. Serve in shallow bowls with more sauce on top.

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Hank Shaw

A former restaurant cook and journalist, Hank Shaw is the author of three wild game cookbooks as well as the James Beard Award-winning wild foods website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. His latest cookbook is Buck, Buck, Moose, a guide to working with venison. He hunts, fishes, forages and cooks near Sacramento, CA.

More from Hank


Shrimp Puttanesca, from TasteFood

Gnocchi with Puttanesca, from Sassy Radish

Pizza Puttanesca, from Local Lemons

Spaghetti alla puttanesca, an explanation in the Wikipedia

Showing 4 of 30 Comments

  • Nancy Larson

    This was delicious, I added red wine and served it over spaghetti squash. Great on bread too.

  • Carly

    I threw in some eggplant, chopped kale, and sliced mushrooms to up the veggie factor – terrific! The olives and capers are great together! I can also recommend using soy crumbles for a vegetarian version.

  • Rebecca Flores

    Holy cow! Made this tonight and the family LOVED it! Even the kiddos :)

  • Ckg

    I heard a syndicated radio host say that Italian women would toss the sauce from their balconies at ladies of the night because of its overwhelming aroma–hence the name.

  • KD Dunbar

    Wow, there are so many stories about the origin of the name of this fantastic pasta dish. I read that the “ladies of the evening” could only shop on Sundays, when all the “proper wives” were in church, and so, had to buy pantry items that would last all week: this sauce is made up of those items. Regardless of the source of the name, this is my favorite pasta dish!

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