Although I enjoy Pasta Puttanesca year round, it always seems particularly wonderful this time of year. That’s because the dish is best when cooked for only 15 or 20 minutes — ideal when you don’t want to heat the kitchen with a long-simmering sauce.
And the naughty name? I’ll get to that.
Recipe: Pasta Puttanesca
This recipe is quite similar in structure to pasta all’arrabbiata, a dish that helped inspire my Pasta with Quick Tomato and Bacon Sauce. But in this recipe, we drop the bacon and instead use anchovies, capers, and olives.
My version of this dish takes bits and pieces from several recipes. The best “classic” recipe I’ve seen is in Giuliano Bugialli’s Bugialli on Pasta (link is to current edition; original edition published in 1988).
This recipe serves 4. If you want to serve only 2, prepare half the pasta and freeze half the sauce (it will keep in the freezer for a month or two).
- 1 28-ounce can diced (or crushed) tomatoes or 2 pounds fresh Roma tomatoes (see notes)
- 1 medium onion (~ ¾ cup), peeled and diced
- 2 - 3 cloves garlic peeled and diced or sliced (see notes for why I like sliced)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 2-ounce can anchovies
- 1 3- to 4-ounce jar capers (the smaller the capers are, the higher their quality)
- ¾ - 1 cup roughly chopped olives (a mix of unstuffed black and green olives is best; see notes)
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more to taste; I often add about a teaspoon, but I like spicy)
- 1 - 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 pound pasta (I prefer a tubular shape with ridges, such as rigatoni; see notes)
- Fresh grated Parmesan cheese for garnish (very optional; see notes)
- If using fresh tomatoes, blanch them in a pot of boiling water. Fill a 4- or 6-quart pot ¾ of the way with water. Plop each tomato into the water for 30 seconds. Then pull the tomato out of the water with tongs and remove skin (it will peel right off). Roughly dice the tomatoes. (Do not pour out the pot of water. You’ll use it later for cooking the pasta.)
- Dice onion and garlic.
- Put 3 – 4 quart wide-bottom saucepan or Dutch oven on stove top, turn heat to medium. When pan is hot, add oil, then add onion and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Turn heat to medium low and sauté, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft (6 – 8 minutes).
- Meanwhile, roughly chop olives (pit them if necessary). Drain capers and rinse off brine. Open can of anchovies, drain excess olive oil.
- When onion is soft, add anchovies to onion mixture. Sauté for 30 seconds or so; the anchovies will begin to dissolve.
- Add red pepper, olives, capers, oregano, and tomato (either canned or the fresh chopped tomatoes you prepared earlier). I usually add about ¼ - ½ can of water to make the sauce a bit more liquid (but you can skip this and add water in step 11 below). Bring sauce to boil, then turn down to a simmer.
- Meanwhile, if you are using canned tomatoes, bring a 4- or 6-quart pot filled ¾ with water to boil. If you are using fresh tomatoes, wait about 10 minutes and then bring the pot of water you used to blanch the tomatoes to a boil. Because the water should still be fairly warm, this will take just a few minutes.
- When water is boiling, salt heavily (1 – 2 tablespoons) and add pasta. Stir, and when water returns to boil, turn down to a simmer.
- Set timer for 6 or 7 minutes, and when it goes off begin testing pasta for doneness. “Done” means the pasta has a little bite.
- When you judge that the pasta is within a minute of being done (for me this is usually at the 8-minute mark), drain pasta, reserving a cup of pasta water. Return pasta to pot and place over low heat.
- Taste sauce for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Add sauce to pasta and stir to combine. Cook over low heat until pasta is done (about a minute). If sauce is too thick, dilute with some of the pasta cooking water.
- Serve pasta. Garnish with grated Parmesan cheese if you wish (see notes).
- I like to use sliced (rather than diced) garlic. I enjoy the flavor of garlic, and I like to bite into a piece that’s large enough to get my attention. Many people would probably prefer their garlic finely diced.
- Traditionally this dish is made with garlic only, no onions. But I like the combination of the two flavors, so I use both.
- Canned or fresh tomatoes? Fresh tomatoes are at their peak for only a month or two out of the year, so most of the time canned tomatoes are the better choice. Canned tomatoes are picked and processed at peak ripeness, so they usually have better flavor than fresh tomatoes that are out of season. Canned tomatoes produce a flavor that is less “bright” or “light” — but one that is good nevertheless.
- I like diced tomatoes for this recipe because they have more structure. But you can use crushed or whole tomatoes too (I’d give whole tomatoes a whirl in the blender first to break them down a bit — don’t liquefy them, just break them up somewhat).
- I recommend using San Marzano tomatoes, if you can find a brand you like and consider affordable. They have fewer seeds, more flesh, and less acid than the typical plum tomato, so they’re superior for sauce making.
- Speaking of seeds, they sometimes can add a bitter note to the pasta sauce. Many recipes suggest running your tomatoes through a food mill. In theory this is a good thing to do. In practice, it’s a pain, so I don’t.
- Bugialli says adding about 2 tablespoons of tomato paste is traditional for this recipe. But I find that, although the tomato paste gives the dish a more pronounced tomato flavor, it also introduces a heavy note that doesn’t seem to fit the dish. If you’d like to use tomato paste, add it with the anchovies in step 5 and sauté it for 30 seconds (this helps release some of its flavor).
- Although a long-strand pasta like spaghetti or linguine is traditional for this sauce, I prefer tubular pasta with ridges (rigatoni or a ribbed ziti or penne would be ideal). The sauce is chunky, so it goes better with a more substantial pasta shape. A ribbed shape works particularly well because the ridges allow sauce to cling to the pasta better. But use whatever shape you prefer.
- I like a mix of black and green olives for this dish, but you can also use one or the other (I recommend black olives if you want to use just one). I often have canned Kalamata olives in my pantry, so they get used a lot. Many supermarkets now have “olive bars” with a variety of different kinds from which you can make a selection.
- If you don’t like anchovies, don’t worry — you won’t taste them in the finished dish (really). They add a great salty and savory undertone that really enhances the final flavor; but it doesn’t taste at all fishy. (You will notice their aroma when you sauté them briefly in step 5, but that soon dissipates.)
- Although I often enjoy grated Parmesan or Romano cheese with pasta, I don’t think this dish needs it. Try it both ways and see which you prefer.
About That Name
Puttanesca means “lady of the evening” in Italian. Legend says practitioners of that profession developed this fast-cooking dish because they wanted something quick and tasty to feed their “guests” (or themselves between clients).
That information may be a bit more than you really wanted to know. It also may not be true. Another story says the recipe was invented by a restaurant owner in the 1950s. Wikipedia has a short (but interesting) history.
I find it hard to believe that this dish dates only to the mid-20th century. The combination of tomatoes, olives, capers, and anchovies is so classic — think Salade Niçoise, for example — that I suspect somebody must have started using it in pasta sauce long before (though perhaps the dish had a less colorful name).
Whenever it was developed, and however it gained its name, Pasta Puttanesca has incomparable flavor. And it’s easy to prepare when guests drop by.
But you might want to consider your audience before answering inquiries about what “puttanesca” means. If young children ask, you may decide your best choice is to just shrug your shoulders and lament that you never studied Italian.
Sometimes playing dumb is the best policy.
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