Spaghetti alla Puttanesca is a classic Italian dish made with pasta, tomatoes, olives, capers, and anchovies. This delicious and aromatic pasta will be ready in 20 minutes! Along with this tuna pasta, it’s one of my favorite quick weeknight dishes. It’s intensely seasoned, with just a few simple ingredients that have a long shelf life, meaning it’s a perfect recipe when you forgot to do shopping or want to eat something delicious and quick after work.
Where does it come from + history of the dish:
This dish comes from the region of Italy called Campania, from the area around the city of Naples, to be exact. It became popular around 1960. Its name can be literally translated as spaghetti in the style of a prostitute. It was allegedly invented by courtesans, who needed to prepare a quick meal made with a few easily available ingredients, which was supposed to fulfill them between appointments. The fragrant and aromatic sauce was also supposed to lure potential customers.
There is also a second, more likely theory of the dish’s creation – pasta would be invented by Sandro Petti, co-owner of a restaurant on the island of Ischia. Apparently one evening, he had to serve a group of guests who, despite the late hour, did not want to finish the celebration in the restaurant and demanded more food. To the chef’s answer that his supplies were over, they were to say – ‘put anything you have on hand in the sauce and it will be fine!’ So Sandro put a couple of his pantry staples and so this dish came to life. In Italian, there is the word ‘puttanata’, similar to ‘puttanesca’ which means ‘something worthless’ (to put it nicely). Spaghetti alla puttanata did not sound very good, so he called it spaghetti alla Puttanesca. After he added this dish to the menu of his restaurant, it gained popularity quite quickly.
Even with such a simple dish, consisting only of pasta and tomato sauce with anchovies (small sardines in a can or jar), black olives, capers, chili, and garlic, you can find many versions of it. In Naples, for example, the sauce is prepared without the anchovies (which is hard for me to imagine, because they give depth and a lot of umami to the sauce), or a version with tuna – which is a good idea, especially for the meat-eaters. This dish is great for a dinner, served with soup or a salad, or in smaller portions as an appetizer.
- Pasta – I used spaghetti but feel free to experiment with other pasta types like fusilli.
- Tomatoes – You can use either crushed tomatoes in a can or tomato passata (tomato puree) in a jar. I prefer the latter because it has a thick and smooth sauce consistency that stays better on spaghetti noodles (on the main photos I used the passata, and on the prep photo there are crushed tomatoes, I really like the smooth sauce version better). The downside of the passata is that it usually comes in 24 oz / 700g jar so you won’t use up the whole jar for this recipe. Alternatively, you can puree the crushed tomatoes until smooth using a blender or a stand mixer and use up the whole can.
- Garlic – I love garlic so I used a lot of it in this recipe. Note that this recipe is calling for chopped garlic. Do not press the garlic through a garlic press – its taste will be too sharp. This article from Serious Eats explains well differences between the pungent taste of garlic depending on which method of mincing the garlic you have used.
- Chili – this dish should be spicy! Add as many chili flakes as you like. I’m not adding much since my small child (2 3/4 yo is also eating this dish).
- Anchovies – these are very small oily fishes that have incredible taste. They are supposed to add umami flavor to the dish. What’s umami? Think of it as a meaty, very satisfying and addicting 5th sense of flavor, just like soy sauce and Parmesan cheese add to the food. I’ve read some interesting things about anchovies here in Wikipedia: anchovies were used in ancient Rome to make Garum – a fermented fish sauce – a condiment that was used to add flavor to many dished at that time. Anchovies were also eaten raw as an aphrodisiac! Nowadays, anchovies are used to make for example Worcestershire sauce – it’s very flavorful and I add it to many dishes (it enhances the flavor of this cabbage roll soup!). I’m adding quite a lot of anchovies to my pasta in comparison to other recipes that can be found on the internet. It’s just when I was adding less I thought the pasta is lacking some flavor. 10 small fillets (0.9oz/25g) hit the sweet spot for me (the pasta won’t taste fishy though, sauteeing them in olive oil and butter tames their fishy taste somehow, leaving just the most amazing flavor). Feel free to use less if you wish, you can add even just 2 fillets. Anchovies are usually sold in small jars in oil (this is what I’ve used).
- Olive oil and butter – traditionally only olive oil is used but I like to mix it with butter for its taste.
- Capers – they are usually sold in small jars in a vinegar brine. I usually rinse them because otherwise they taste too vinegary for me. If you’re new to eating capers you can add less at first and increase their amount as soon as you’re accustomed to the flavor.
- Olives – both black and green olives will work. I added the black olives for a pop of color!
- To serve – chopped parsley – in my opinion, it works here even better than basil. Restrain yourself from adding grated cheese. According to Italian customs a pasta or rice dish shouldn’t contain both fish and cheese. I’m usually not very fond of following set rules but I must admit, I can’t imagine adding grated cheese here. For me, this recipe works perfectly as written and doesn’t lack the cheese, although I’m a huge fan and I sprinkle my Parmesan or Pecorino on top of many dishes.
How to make it step by step:
This is a complete recipe. Scroll down for printable recipe card.
Start with cooking 8 oz (225g) spaghetti noodles. They should be cooked al dente, that means they should have a bite to it, don’t overcook it! Cook it in a small amount of well-salted water then reserve about a ½ cup of the pasta cooking water (!).
- Prepare the ingredients: finely chop 5 cloves of garlic, roughly chop 10 anchovies (0.9oz/25g), drain and rinse the 1 Tbsp of capers, cut 15 black or green olives in half. If you’re using crushed tomatoes in a can (14oz/400g can) and not tomato passata/puree I recommend mixing the tomatoes until smooth (with a blender or hand blender) – this is optional but I prefer a smooth sauce without tomato chunks.
- Heat 1 Tbsp of olive oil and 1 Tbsp of butter in a large frying pan, add the garlic, 1/2 ts (or more, to taste) chili flakes, and anchovies, cook over medium heat, stirring, for 1 minute.
3. Add the olives, capers, tomatoes/passata, and pasta cooking water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes (stirring from time to time) until the sauce has thickened. After this time, season the sauce lightly with salt and pepper. Be careful with adding salt (!), because anchovies, olives, and capers are already salty. Take the pan off the heat.
4. Add the cooked pasta to the pan, toss with the sauce.
Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve immediately. Enjoy!
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca – tomatoes, olives, capers and anchovies pasta
- 8 oz spaghetti (225g)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon butter or olive oil
- 5 cloves garlic finely chopped
- ½ teaspoon chili flakes or to taste
- 10 anchovies in oil 0.9 oz / 25g, drained and cut into large pieces
- 15 black olives (or green olives) seedless and cut in half crosswise
- 1 tablespoon capers drained and rinsed
- 1 can crushed tomatoes (14 oz / 400g) or tomato passata/tomato puree
- ½ cup pasta cooking water
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar optional*
- salt and black pepper to taste
- 3 tablespoons chopped parsley to serve
- Cook the spaghetti al dente (it should have a bite to it) in a small amount of well-salted water. Reserve about a ½ cup of the pasta cooking water (!).
- Prepare the ingredients: finely chop the garlic, roughly chop the anchovies, drain and rinse the capers, cut the olives in half. If you're using crushed tomatoes in a can and not tomato passata/puree I recommend mixing the tomatoes until smooth (with blender or hand blender) – this is optional but I prefer a smooth sauce without tomato chunks.
- Heat the olive oil and butter in a large frying pan, add the garlic, chili flakes, and anchovies, cook over medium heat, stirring, for 1 minute.
- Add the olives, capers, tomatoes/passata, and pasta cooking water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes (stirring from time to time) until the sauce has thickened. After this time, season the sauce lightly with salt and pepper. Be careful with adding salt (!), because anchovies, olives, and capers are already salty. Take the pan off the heat.
- Add the cooked pasta to the pan, toss with the sauce.
- Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve immediately.
- You can also add: a can of tuna (drained, I prefer tuna in olive oil), 1/2 ts of lemon zest, 1/2 ts of dried oregano.
- Servings: 2 dinner servings or 4 appetizer servings. These are light dinner serving, to make this more filling you can add canned tuna to the dish.
- How to season the pasta to your liking: I added sugar to my recipe because my tomatoes were a little on the sour side. You can omit the sugar if you wish or add even 1 ts. Add a pich at first and taste the sauce. If it tastes too sour or you feel it lacks ‘something’ it’s probably either lack of salt or sugar. If it turns out too sweet you can add more capers or balsamic vinegar (or lemon juice) to the sauce.
- Calories count = 1 serving (1/2 of the recipe).
Did you make this recipe? Let me know how you liked it and give it a star rating in the comments below! You can also add a photo of your creation!