Pasta Puttanesca, Kitchen Genius Edition
Got pantry staples? Then you can whip up this easy, zesty southern Italian pasta dish — and look like a rock star.
When I was in college, I was known for throwing together pasta puttanesca for my roommates and friends after boisterous nights out. They thought I was a kitchen genius, but truth is, the southern Italian dish is a snap to pull off. It’s a hit around the world for other very good reasons, too. Pasta puttanesca (or spaghetti alla puttanesca, as the Italians say) is built from pantry ingredients that pack a flavor punch. It’s nearly meatless but very satisfying. It’s cheap, and the sauce is ready in the time it takes to cook a pot of pasta.
When I finally wrote out the recipe and pinned it to the inside of a cupboard door, my non-cook college friends were shocked at how simple the dish is, especially for how complex it tastes. There are a few tricks I shared with them that I’m sharing with you now, so you can keep this Neapolitan classic in your repertoire of quick pasta meals (late night or otherwise).
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Pasta puttanesca Q & A
Once you learn a little more about pasta puttanesca, you might be surprised at how easy it is to make.
What is pasta puttanesca?
Pasta puttanesca is a simple pasta dish from Naples, Italy, that starts with onions, anchovies, and garlic sauteed in olive oil. You'll add good-quality canned tomatoes, olives, red chili flakes, and sometimes capers and then simmer them briefly in the pan before adding hot pasta. It's quick and very satisfying.
What does puttanesca mean?
Legend has it that this quick pasta was a favorite with the brothel workers (“putta” in Italian slang) of Napoli, who, in between guests, would throw together inexpensive ingredients common in southern Italian kitchens — anchovies, tomatoes, and olives over spaghetti. Another origin story comes from a restaurant owner on the island of Ischia (due West of Naples). He claimed some hungry customers showed up after barhopping and asked the chef to make them “un puttanata qualisiasi,” which roughly means “throw together whatever you have.” The origins of this southern Italian pasta sauce may be murky, but the punchy flavors of this quick sauce are clear as a bell.
What’s in puttanesca pasta sauce?
The basic sauce is made up of a generous amount of olive oil, a few anchovies, 3 cloves garlic, good-quality diced tomatoes, gaeta olives (or kalamata olives), oregano, crushed red pepper flakes, and sometimes grated pecorino romano cheese. Some chefs add capers, too. The anchovy fillets melt seamlessly into the oil, so while you will taste their savory flavor, the dish isn’t overly fishy. (Anchovy haters will be none the wiser!)
What does pasta puttanesca taste like?
Pasta puttanesca tastes salty, sweet, spicy, and umami rich. My recipe delivers a light tomato sauce that coats the pasta with a balance of briny/salty elements (anchovies, capers, and black olives), sweetness (ripe tomatoes), and a finishing bite of heat (red chili flakes).
What to serve with pasta puttanesca
The sauce is commonly paired with spaghetti, but you can use any shape pasta you have on hand. Penne and rigatoni are good choices. Serve it with a simple green salad and some warm crusty bread to mop up the sauce at the bottom of your bowl. As for a wine pairing (you were planning to serve wine, weren’t you?), choose a big, bold red wine from southern Italy. Primitivo from Puglia and Nero D’Avola from Sicily come to mind.
Ingredients for pasta puttanesca
Photo by Olga Ivanova
As with all Italian cooking, the road to success is paved at the market. Buy the best possible ingredients and let their flavors sing without over complicating things. Buy imported jarred anchovies if possible — they tend to be meaty and less fishy-tasting then inexpensive tinned anchovies. Sometimes they’ll come wrapped around a caper, which you can add to the sauce as well. My recipe also includes a tablespoon of capers for extra kick.
I recommend San Marzano-style tomatoes. They’re a sweet, fleshy heirloom variety that are picked at their peak ripeness. The whole canned tomatoes tend to be higher quality than chopped ones or crushed tomatoes. Look for San Marzano tomatoes in well-stocked markets — they’re often packed with whole basil leaves, a bonus!
In my recipe I add grated sheep’s milk cheese, pecorino romano, for extra piquant flavor and creaminess. Though many Italian chefs recoil at the idea of combining fish and cheese, I like the flavor it adds! I also toss in some fresh parsley.
How to make pasta puttanesca
Photo by Olga Ivanova
Everything happens fast with this dish, so put your salted pasta water to boil in a large pot such as a 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven and proceed with the sauce.
While the pot of water is heating, get your sauce ingredients ready. This includes chopping the onion, garlic, anchovies, and olives, if they’re large.
For the sauce, use a large saute pan or 12-inch frying pan that will be big enough to hold the drained spaghetti as well. Saute the onion over medium heat in a generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil, then add the garlic, anchovies, capers, oregano, and red pepper flakes. The anchovies will melt into the mixture as you stir. Be careful to watch this step closely; don’t let the garlic color, or the sauce will be bitter and you’ll have to start again.
When the aromatics smell amazing, deglaze your large skillet with white wine to release any browned bits and burn off the alcohol.
Next add the tomato juice from the can, then the tomatoes, squeezing them into smaller pieces with your hands. Add the olives to the pan and simmer the sauce, covered, while you cook the pasta. Cook the spaghetti in the salted water until it’s barely tender to bite (al dente), as it will cook a bit more in the sauce.
Add the drained cooked pasta to the pan with the sauce and toss with tongs, stirring and tossing constantly. This step is the Italian chefs’ trick for thoroughly infusing the pasta with all the flavors in the sauce. If you only ladle the sauce on top of the pasta, it doesn’t marry the ingredients together sufficiently.
Finally, add parsley and cheese and toss to combine.
Get the pasta puttanesca recipe
This is the pantry pasta recipe to have in your back pocket for nights when you’re in a hurry and don’t have anything planned. Savory and just a little spicy, it tastes much more than a sum of its parts. Be prepared to share the recipe, as guests are going to rave about this easy pasta dish.
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