The Saucy Secrets of Pasta Puttanesca: A Recipe with A Provocative Past

EuropeItalyThe Saucy Secrets of Pasta Puttanesca: A Recipe with A Provocative Past

Pasta Puttanesca, a bold and savory Italian pasta dish made with anchovies, capers, red pepper, garlic, olives, tomatoes, and parsley, has captured the hearts and taste buds of food lovers around the world. With its punchy flavors and intriguing history, it’s no wonder that this saucy concoction has become a favorite on dinner tables everywhere. In this post, we will delve into the secrets of Pasta Puttanesca, exploring its fascinating past, uncovering the truth behind its scandalous name, and providing you with a step-by-step guide on how to make this tasty recipe at home.

The Intriguing History of Pasta Puttanesca

Like most food legends, the story behind Pasta Puttanesca is a bit mysterious. Everyone has an opinion, but no one is really sure about the facts. Most believe the dish originated in the streets of Naples, Italy. But others contend the origins were in Rome. Nothing too scandalous yet…

Here is where things start to get a little sordid! The word “puttanesca” seems to originate from the word “puttana”, which means “prostitute” in Italian, with “puttanesca” roughly meaning “in the style of prostitutes”. “Puttana” in turn appears to originate from the Latin word “putida”, which means “rotten” or “stinking”. Yikes!

So while we can’t be totally sure, it seems that Puttanesca either refers to the belief that the dish was first served in the local brothels or that the ingredients have a strong, pungent smell. Or perhaps a bit of both! Regardless of its origin, one thing is for certain: Pasta Puttanesca is a bold dish full of flavor.

The Classic Ingredients of Pasta Puttanesca

The history lesson is finished! Let’s talk about the recipe!

Variations abound, but generally, Puttanesca is a quickly-cooked sauce of anchovies, capers, red pepper, garlic, olives, tomatoes, and parsley, tossed with long pasta, such as spaghetti. The combination of these ingredients creates a robust flavor that is both tangy and savory, with a hint of spiciness.

Step-by-Step Guide To Making Pasta Puttanesca

  1. This is a fast-cooking dish, so begin by gathering and prepping all your ingredients.
  2. Start heating the pasta water and cooking the sauce at the same time.
  3. Develop the flavors in the sauce over medium-low heat.
  4. Add the tomatoes to the sauce at about the same time the pasta goes into the cooking water.
  5. Undercook the pasta, removing it from the boiling water 3 minutes before the package suggestion. Be sure to reserve some pasta water to add to the sauce if needed.
  6. Add the drained pasta to the sauce, adding a splash of pasta water if needed, and stir and toss everything together until the pasta is cooked through and coated in the delicious Puttanesca sauce.
  7. Dish it up, give it a garnish, and enjoy immediately! Yumm!

Pairing Suggestions for Pasta Puttanesca

Once you’ve cooked your delicious Pasta Puttanesca, what are you going to pair with it? Look for red wines that are medium- to full-bodied, with a good amount of acidity. Think Chianti Classico or Barbera from Italy, red blends from Alentejo in Portugal, or Rioja from Spain. Crisp, high-acid whites, such as sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio can be great options, as well.

You might be rightly concerned that the anchovy would make any wine paired with Puttanesca taste tinny. But not to worry, the anchovy disappears into the sauce, leaving a wonderful umami savoriness. No tinny, fishiness here!

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Pasta Puttanesca

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  • Author: Julie A. Cockburn
  • Total Time: 45 minutes
  • Yield: 2 servings 1x
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A bold and savory Italian pasta dish that comes together in a jiffy using mostly pantry items – perfect for a weeknight meal. With its punchy flavors and intriguing history, it’s no wonder that this saucy concoction has become a favorite on dinner tables everywhere. 


Units Scale
  • 8 ounces spaghetti or other long pasta
  • 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 anchovy filets (about 1/4 ounce)
  • 4 large cloves garlic – thinly sliced or minced
  • A handful of pitted kalamata or gaeta olives (about 2.5 ounces pitted) – torn in half (see notes)
  • A few generous pinches of crushed red pepper, plus more for garnish
  • 2 tablespoons capers (about .75 ounces) – drained or rinsed if they were packed in salt
  • 114.5 ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes (see notes)
  • Salt
  • 1/2 bunch of parsley (about .75 ounce or 3/4 cup loosely packed) – minced


  1. This is a fast dish, so start by gathering and prepping all your ingredients.
  2. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil.
  3. While the water comes to a boil, heat the olive oil and anchovy filets in an 8- to 10-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Keep the heat on the low side. All we are doing at this stage is softening and melting the anchovies into the olive oil. Stir frequently, breaking up the anchovies. When they are fully broken up, add the garlic to the oil, and continue cooking, stirring frequently until the garlic is soft and fragrant. Once the garlic is soft and fragrant, add the olives, a few generous pinches of crushed red peppers, and the capers to the mix. Continue cooking and stirring for a minute or so longer.
  4. Meanwhile, in a medium-sized bowl, squish the tomatoes and their liquid into a coarse-textured puree. I like to do this by hand, squeezing and breaking up each tomato. But if you don’t want to be so hands-on, feel free to use a potato masher. Be aware, tomatoes may squirt when they are squished! A high-sided bowl and an apron are a good idea!
  5. Turn the skillet up to medium-high and add the tomatoes, stirring well. Bring the mix to a boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Continue stirring frequently, using the spoon to break up any large pieces of tomato. 
  6. By now, the pasta-cooking water should be boiling. Add 1 tablespoon salt to the water, along with the pasta. Cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until very al dente, about 3 minutes short of the package cooking time. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water before draining.
  7. Just before the pasta is done cooking, stir the parsley into the tomato sauce, reserving a bit for garnish. At this point, the sauce should be thickened slightly, but still liquidy. If it is very thick and dry, add a bit of the reserved pasta water to the mix.
  8. Add the pasta to the sauce, stirring and tossing continually until the pasta is al dente and well coated in the glossy sauce, 2 or 3 minutes. If the sauce is thick and dry or the pasta starts to stick to the skillet, add a splash or two of the reserved pasta water. 
  9. Taste for seasoning, adding salt or additional crushed red pepper if needed.
  10. Transfer to individual plates, garnishing with the reserved parsley and a dusting of crushed red pepper. Enjoy!

Recommended Equipment and Goodies


Gaeta olives are the more traditional choice for Pasta Puttanesca, but they can be hard to find. More readily available kalamata olives make a great substitute. Keep the dish rustic by tearing the olives in half or quarters, rather than slicing them with a knife.

Good quality canned tomatoes are vital to this dish. Use the best ones reasonably available to you. Whole, peeled tomatoes are best, but if you can only find diced, they will work in a pinch. In my area, I am usually only able to source good quality, whole, peeled tomatoes in 28-ounce cans. If that’s the case for you too, use half the can in this recipe, and reserve the rest for another use. I haven’t tried it myself, but you can also use perfectly ripe, fresh tomatoes – smaller tomatoes like Roma or cherry tomatoes would be a great choice.

Looking for a recipe to serve alongside your Pasta Puttanesca? Try this tasty veggie dish – Zucchini Stuffed with Tomatoes and Rosemary

If you enjoy these quick-cooking pasta dishes that are loaded with flavor, you’ll love this recipe for Sicilian-style Spaghetti with Anchovies and Breadcrumbs. It’s a favorite in my kitchen when I want something with bold, satisfying flavor, but don’t have a lot of time to spend cooking. 

Interested in learning more about tinned fish? Check out my article about Portuguese Canned Fish – How To Eat It Like A Local.

  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Cook Time: 30 minutes
  • Category: Entree
  • Cuisine: Italian
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Julie Cockburn with the Taste Of The Place cookbook

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