Once I discovered how fast and easy it is to make Spaghetti alla Puttanesca, it’s been a staple in our house. Tender pasta is tossed with a robust sauce of tomatoes, olives, capers, garlic, anchovies, and, of course, good olive oil. It’s a 30 minute meal that’s dinner party elegant, but weeknight easy.
There are a couple of distinct versions of this Italian pasta dish. In Naples, Italy (in the Campania region where the dish was invented in the mid-20th century), you won’t find anchovies or garlic in the puttanesca sauce. But the version from Italy’s Lazio region has plenty of both. And everyone seems to agree on spaghetti as the ideal pasta shape – though any long, thin pasta will do.
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca Ingredients
- Spaghetti: Linguine, bucatini, and vermicelli are also options.
- Olive Oil: Any good, fruity extra-virgin olive oil.
- Garlic: Look for a plump head of garlic with smooth, taut skin.
- Anchovy Fillets: Packed in oil, this is my favorite brand.
- Red Pepper Flakes: Your favorite brand.
- Crushed Tomatoes: You’ll want the juice as well as the tomatoes.
- Dried Oregano: Or double the amount of minced fresh oregano.
- Black Olives: Oil Cured or Kalamata Olives.
- Capers: Salt cured or in brine; rinsed and drained.
- Fresh Parsley: Ideally flat leaf parsley.
Puttanesca Recipe Lore
There are a couple of theories explaining how Spaghetti alla Puttanesca got its name. Because “puttana” means “prostitute” in Italian, some claim that the recipe began in one of the brothels in Naples’ Spanish Quarter. Others say it started in the 1950s with a clever restaurant owner, Sandro Petti. Low on ingredients and about to go home for the evening, a group of hungry customers told him, “Facci una puttanata qualsiasi,” or “throw together whatever.” The story goes that what he came up with was so good, it made a permanent place on the restaurant’s menu.
If you’re an anchovy lover, make this recipe as is (or add even more anchovies, as I often do). If not, feel free to omit them, and the garlic too if you like, for the traditional Naples version. That said, I promise that anchovies melt into the sauce adding depth and richness without even a hint of fishiness.
Though it’s not traditional for pasta puttanesca, a sprinkle of parmesan cheese before serving is excellent.
More Classic Italian Pasta Dishes
- Pasta alla Norma (Custardy bites of eggplant makes this dish exceptional!)
- Broccoli Rabe and Sausage Pasta (A hearty, one dish meal that everyone loves.)
- Ragu Sauce (An authentic recipe taught to me by my Italian friend, Giovanna.)
- Bolognese Sauce (The recipe we learned in a cooking class on a visit to Bologna, Italy.)
How to Make Spaghetti alla Puttanesca
Step 1: Cook spaghetti according to package directions, reserving at least 1 cup of cooking liquid.
Step 2 : Meanwhile, cook and stir garlic, anchovies, and red pepper flakes in hot olive oil until fragrant. Stir in tomatoes with juice and oregano and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in olives and capers and simmer 5 minutes more.
Step 3: Add cooked pasta to sauce and stir to coat evenly, adding reserved cooking liquid as needed to loosen sauce. Serve garnished with parsley.
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca
- 10 ounces spaghetti or other long, thin pasta
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic thinly sliced
- 4 anchovy fillets finely chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes or more to taste
- 14 1/2 ounces crushed tomatoes with juice
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 cup pitted black olives oil cured or kalamata, halved
- 1 tablespoon capers chopped if large
- chopped fresh parsley for garnish
- Cook pasta according to package directions in a large pot of water until al dente. Drain, reserving 1 cup or more of the cooking water. (Ideally, pasta will finish at the same time as the sauce – if not, use cooking liquid to loosen drained pasta before adding to sauce.)
- Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until hot. Add sliced garlic cloves, chopped anchovy fillets, and red pepper flakes; cook and stir until mixture is fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add tomatoes with juice and oregano; bring to boil. Reduce and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in olives and capers; simmer 3-5 minutes more, stirring occasionally until thickened.
- Stir cooked spaghetti into pasta sauce to coat, adding reserved pasta water as necessary to loosen sauce. Serve garnished with chopped parsley.