Pasta Puttanesca

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Pasta Puttanesca is a classic Italian pasta dish that's ready in under 40 minutes! Make it with canned tomato paste and crushed tomatoes, canned anchovies, jarred olives and capers. So simple and so good.

Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

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.

Video! How to Make Pasta Puttanesca

The Ingredients for Pasta Puttanesca

Puttanesca is the quintessential “I’m tired” meal, as it is almost entirely made up of pantry staples:

  • Canned tomato paste
  • 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.

How to Make Pasta Puttanesca

What Does Puttanesca Mean?

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

What to Serve with Pasta Puttanesca

For some extra garlic, serve this pasta with Garlic Bread or Garlic Knots. You can also round out the meal with a leafy green salad, like a simple Caesar Salad.

Storing and Freezing Leftovers

If you do have any leftovers, they’ll keep for a few days in the fridge and can be reheated in the microwave.

The sauce (without the spaghetti) also freezes quite well. Freeze for up to three months and thaw in the fridge.

Love Italian Pastas? Try These!

Updated March 15, 2020 : We spiffed up this post to make it sparkle. No changes to the original recipe.

Pasta Puttanesca Recipe

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

Spaghetti is the traditional pasta for this recipe, but any kind of pasta will work.

Ingredients

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

Method

1 Heat pasta water: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil (1 Tbsp of salt for every 2 quarts of water). While the water is heating, start making the sauce.

2 Cook onions, anchovies, garlic: Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large, deep sauté pan. When the oil is hot, cook 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 finely chopped garlic and cook another minute.

3 Make the sauce: Mix in the tomato paste and cook it for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.Add the crushed tomatoes, oregano, chili pepper flakes, olives, and capers. Bring the sauce to a simmer, then lower the heat to low to maintain a gentle simmer, 10 to 15 minutes.

4 Cook the spaghetti: When the salted pasta water is at a rolling boil, add the pasta. Cook the pasta according to the package instructions, to al dente, cooked but still slightly firm.

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

6 Serve: Drain the pasta and put in a large bowl. If you want, mix a little olive oil into the pasta so the pasta doesn't stick together.

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

42 Comments / Reviews

No ImagePasta Puttanesca

Did you make it? Rate it!

  1. Tim

    I’d been on the same basic Italian dishes for so long I wanted to try something different. I chose this recipe based solely on the picture, and almost got turned off by the ingredients. Even though I was still dreading not liking this dish as I made it, by the point the sauce was hot it began smelling deliciously good. Olives in the sauce, the anchovies and the capers were all new to me so I had no idea how this was going to turn out, but I followed the recipe exactly. Turns out I found my new favorite meal. The flavors combine so well, and I like that this doesn’t make a ton of sauce. It is so good to get away from “American spaghetti” tired lasagna, and those soggy tortellini for awhile. \The parsley was a new addition as well, although I forgot to mix it into the sauce so instead I just finely chopped it on top. This will be a repeater for many times to come. thank you so much for this. If anyone has any wine pairing recommendations that would be super.

    xxxxxyyyyy

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  2. Gretchen

    This was WONDERFUL. So much flavor. I added a tiny amount of sugar at the end to counteract the acidity, but otherwise made it as written. I’m going to increase the amount of sauce next time–so good.

    xxxxxyyyyy

  3. Mark

    Was in the restaurant Biz for well over a decade. (close to two) At one of them, this was consistently in the top sellers. Ours was slightly different, with a New Orleans twist. Pasta was penne, but some times Buccatinni. Meat wise, we used chunks of rotisserie chicken and grilled chunks of Andouille sausage. Some times (if extra available), we’d toss in a handful of bay shrimp. You pair this up with a good Caesar salad & French bagget’s and you’ve got one hell of a great meal, with Pinot Noir to wash it all down. And the history story behind the name is true, named after the hookers if the time. I’ll give this version a go. Thanx for posting it. You sound like a fasinatting guy!
    Regards, ~Chef Spudsrus.

  4. Sonya

    This is one of my go-to quick meals. The first time, I made it with sardines and penne because it’s all I had. I even tossed it all together with some leftover roasted broccoli and fresh-shredded parm, and popped it in the oven for a bit. It was indulgent without feeling too heavy, and perfectly tasty. My boyfriend claimed it cured him after a pretty long bender. So…thanks! Side note to the author: I normally hate reading through a person’s cute, long anecdote about the recipe I’m trying to get to at the end of the page. However, I enjoyed reading yours! Cheers!

    xxxxxyyyyy

  5. Allison

    Simply delicious! The only changes I made were to use anchovy paste instead of the anchovies and diced tomatoes instead of whole ones. My husband loved it! It will added to my file of recipes worth repeating.

    xxxxxyyyyy

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