Pasta Puttanesca, or Spaghetti alla Puttanesca, is an aromatic and flavor-packed Italian recipe with a sauce filled with flavorful ingredients like olives, capers, lots of garlic, and anchovies. Never cooked with anchovies before? Don’t fret – this recipe is beyond easy and takes only 10 minutes of prep. The anchovies add an intense savory, umami-packed flavor that makes this traditional puttanesca sauce authentic and delicious.
Did I eat two and a half servings of this in one sitting? Yes. Did my kids eat theirs all up? You bet. Did I immediately add all the ingredients to my grocery list after eating this? 100%.
This pasta puttanesca is one of my FAVORITE Italian recipes of all time, and this version tastes so authentic and traditional. A few tips and tricks boost the flavor and make the sauce thick and luxurious, clinging to every bite.
It’s traditionally made with spaghetti, but you can use any kind of pasta you like.
And even if you think you don’t like olives, capers, or anchovies – you should give this recipe a try. Simmering all those ingredients in the tomato-based sauce mellows out the flavor of each of these ingredients a bit.
Ingredients and Substitutions
- Spaghetti – or almost any other kind of pasta you like.
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Garlic – fresh is best
- Anchovies – I recommend one 2-oz. tin of anchovies packed in olive oil. You can also make a vegetarian/vegan version by using crumbled up nori, or dried seaweed (see more below in the FAQs).
- Crushed red pepper flakes – you can omit this for a mild version.
- Canned diced tomatoes – you can use crushed tomatoes instead, preferably chunky-style for some texture.
- Olives – I used kalamata, but you can use any kind of pitted olive.
- Capers – read more about what capers are here.
- Fresh parsley – can be omitted or substituted with another herb like fresh oregano or basil if preferred.
How to make Pasta Puttanesca
- BOIL salted water – go heavy on the salt, as this will help season the pasta. I usually add at least 2 tablespoons of kosher salt to a large pot of water.
- SAUTÉ chopped anchovies, garlic, and red pepper flakes in olive oil in a large deep skillet with a lid over medium or medium-low heat. You don’t want to burn the garlic, so keep stirring, and eventually the anchovies will dissolve into everything.
- ADD diced tomatoes, capers, olives, and parsley to the skillet, and simmer the puttanesca sauce covered (to avoid splatters) on low for 10-15 minutes.
- COOK the pasta according to directions to 1 minute BEFORE al dente. It will finish cooking in the sauce, which will boost flavor and thicken the sauce.
- TRANSFER the pasta directly from the pot to the sauce, as well as 1/2 cup of the cooking water from the pasta (this will help thicken the sauce and make it cling to the pasta).
- CONTINUE COOKING for 3-5 more minutes until pasta is cooked all the way through and the sauce is thickened and clings to the pasta. You can add more pasta water 1/4 cup at a time if it seems dry at all.
- SERVE with parmesan, more parsley for garnish, and fresh cracked pepper if desired.
What does “puttanesca” mean?
Oh goodness I’m glad you asked, because the origin of puttanesca sauce is one of the most interesting food stories ever.
Roughly translated, puttanesca means “lady of the night.” Yup, you read that right! One theory about the origin of puttanesca sauce is that the sauce is so fragrant and aromatic that it would lure men to brothels.
While just a theory, I love the interesting story behind the origin of Puttanesca sauce.
Can I make the sauce ahead of time?
Yes! To save some time on a busy weeknight, make this sauce on the weekend and save it in the fridge. When you are ready to cook, simply heat up the sauce and add cooked pasta for a fast and delicious dinner!
The sauce is also freezable. Make a big batch and freeze in an airtight container for up to 6 months. You can also cut the pasta amount in half (to 8 oz.) but make the fully amount of sauce, and freeze half the sauce for another time.
Can I adapt this to be a one pot pasta?
You can definitely adapt this recipe to be a One Pot Pasta Puttanesca! This will save time on doing dishes.
Just make the sauce according to the directions in a large pot or Dutch oven, and add 16 oz. dry pasta along with 4 cups of water or chicken broth to the pot. Stir so the pasta is submerged. Cover and simmer on low for 15 minutes or until pasta is cooked.
For one pot spaghetti alla puttanesca, or if using another long pasta shape, break the noodles in half so they submerge in the liquid.
Can I make this a vegetarian puttanesca?
The anchovies add a lot of authentic flavor, but definitely aren’t vegetarian. But if you’re looking for a vegetarian version, you can sub the anchovies with nori, or dried seaweed!
Nori has a lot of the same salty, fishy, umami-packed flavor without the fish. You can see more at this recipe for vegan puttanesca.
Other traditional Italian pasta recipes
- Linguine Fra Diavolo (seafood pasta with spicy tomato sauce)
- Bucatini all’Amatriciana (bucatini or spaghetti with pancetta and tomato sauce)
- Spaghetti alla Carbonara (spaghetti with pancetta and egg sauce)
- Pasta e Fagioli (pasta and beans)
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- 16 oz. spaghetti or other kind of pasta
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 5 cloves garlic coarsely chopped
- 2 oz. anchovies packed in oil drained and roughly chopped (1 tin)
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 28 oz. canned diced tomatoes
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped pitted olives about 20 whole (I used kalamata)
- 1/4 cup capers drained and rinsed
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley optional
- parmesan cheese, extra parsley, and black pepper for serving (optional)
- Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil.
- Meanwhile, heat the olive oil (2 tablespoons) in a large deep skillet or pot over medium heat.
- Add anchovies (2 oz.), garlic (5 cloves), and red pepper flakes (1/2 teaspoon). Keep an eye on the heat and bring it down to medium-low or low if needed; the garlic should cook and soften but not burn. Stir frequently to dissolve anchovies (about 5 minutes).
- Add the canned diced tomatoes (28 oz.), the chopped olives (1/2 cup), the capers (1/4 cup), and the parsley, if using (2 tablespoons).
- Let the sauce simmer, covered for 10-15 minutes. Add the spaghetti (or other pasta, 16 oz.) to the now boiling salted water. Cook according to directions on package until just before al dente.
- Use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer pasta directly to the sauce. Transfer about 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water to the sauce as well. Stir to coat, and continue heating on low heat until pasta is fully al dente and the sauce has thickened and sticks to the pasta well (about 3-5 more minutes). If it seems dry at all, you can add a little more pasta cooking water about 1/4 cup at a time until it's the right consistency.
- Serve, sprinkled with parmesan cheese, extra parsley, and black pepper if desired.
- Freeze the sauce: Freeze in an airtight container or jar for up to 6 months. I like to reserve half of the cooked sauce and use only 8 oz. of pasta to cut the recipe in half and enjoy the sauce at another time.
- How to prep and drain the anchovies: the anchovies come packed in a tin with olive oil. I just use a small fork to lift the anchovies out and transfer to a cutting board, then give them a rough chop. There’s no bones or anything you need to worry about- just chop away!
- More on transferring the pasta to the sauce: I don’t recommend draining pasta in a colander with pasta recipes like this because the water that clings to the pasta is key for thickening the sauce and making it stick to the pasta. That’s why it’s recommended to transfer directly from the pot to the sauce, as well as finish cooking completely in there with some extra pasta water. This is KEY for getting the best homemade Italian pasta recipes!
- For a vegan/vegetarian version, you can use crumbled up seaweed (nori) sheets to get a similar, plant-based taste to the anchovies. Here’s a recipe for vegan puttanesca that uses nori and tamari (or soy sauce) to boost the umami flavor without the fish.
- To make this a one-pot pasta, make the sauce in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add 4 cups of water or chicken broth to the sauce and bring to a boil. Add the 16 oz. dry pasta (break spaghetti, fettuccini, or other long shapes in half) and stir to fully submerge and separate out the noodles. Cover and simmer on low for about 15 minutes, or until pasta is fully cooked.
- Large deep skillet with a lid
- Large pot
This post originally appeared on Bowl of Delicious on March 1, 2014. It has been republished with new photos, improved recipe instructions, and more pertinent information.