pasta alla puttanesca

tortiglioni alla puttanesca

PUTTANESCA aka THE WHORE’S SAUCE. With a name like this you can only expect something spectacular. There are several metropolitan legends that try to explain the peculiar name. The one that makes more sense to me refers to prostitutes not having time or opportunity to shop and therefore making a quick sauce with ingredients available in the larder.

And ingredients are the key to the excitement. Good bronze drawn pasta, sun ripen tomatoes, tiny capers preserved in salt, anchovies packed in olive oil, sweet, firm, flavorful olives, fruity extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic and parsley.

If you don’t have all the above please don’t be tempted to add cheese, tuna fish, mushrooms, roasted peppers, pancetta or other oddities. A good recipe is like a play, if one actor doesn’t know his part you can’t rescue it by having one someone who has learned a different role.


  • 1 pound (500 grams) dried pasta
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon capers, soaked in water and drained
  • 5 oz (150 gr) Kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 1 small dried red chile
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 (14 ounce/400gram) cans diced/crushed tomatoes
  • 1 good handful fresh parsley finely chopped

The recipe is traditionally made with spaghetti and olives from Gaeta. Short pasta like penne or the beautiful tortiglioni in the picture is easy if you need to feed a crowd. Gaeta olives are probably not common outside Italy but Kalamata are a good substitute.

The inexpensive, pizza style, ubiquitously bland black olives are generally unripe green olives that have been dyed with iron salts (ferrous gluconate) after artificial ripening. Avoid.

Saute the garlic, capers, olives, anchovies, chili in 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil for a couple of minutes. Mash the anchovies with the back of a wooden spoon and when they disappear add the tomatoes, cover and simmer for 10 min until slightly thickened.

If you are not fond of chili pepper you can omit it and serve some of my spicy oil to those who do.

Cook the pasta in plenty salted, boiling water until al dente. Drain and transfer the pasta in the hot sauce. Stir quickly, add the fresh parsley and serve.

Serve 6

PS. please note that the anchovy in the photo is only a decoration, used to point out that is an important ingredient. The anchovy used in the sauce is melted and you cannot see it!

Spaghetti alla puttanesca

19 thoughts on “pasta alla puttanesca

    1. Ciao Claudia!
      the anchovy are practically obligatory in this recipe. Italians use anchovies as a flavor enhancer not as a main ingredients. I think the reason why many people don’t like it is because they use too much and make everything salty and strong. A tiny bit goes a long way.


  1. Thanks for sharing this one! I will certainly be trying it soon. Denis and I have nothing but fond memories of our time at madonna del piatto this July. We purchased a pasta maker as soon as we arrived home and have made some great meals for friends and family. I was pleased to find that we have a few well-supplied Italian stores close by. We were able to find the 00 flour, different pecorino cheeses, and even the salsa tartufato. Buon appetito!


  2. Tuna? Ick! Why do people take a great recipe and try to “enhance” it with stuff they don’t need?

    Your recipe is SO delicious, Letizia! And your explanation of the role of anchovies, as a flavour enhancer, was so helpful during our class — every time I see you, I learn great tips like this!


    1. Ciao Sandra
      this happens when people do not realize the value of good ingredients. If one uses poor ingredients, they have no taste so one is tempted to add something else. Adding another poor ingredient might however make things even worse!


  3. Just put my own chilli oil in the cupboard for the obligatory month!
    Yours was so awesome, I had to have my own!

    I just want to say thank you for inspiring me to get in the kitchen and COOK!

    (no cooking this weekend, Mark is doing the tiling – best not approach the area!!)


  4. We made this over the week-end and it was sodelicious. We substitued fresh tomatoes from our garden for canned but otherwise stayed “true” to the recipe.
    Thanks for another great recipe!


    1. Hi Gigi
      thanks for your suggestions. In Italy we use San Marzano tomatoes which are sweeter and less acidic than Roma.I believe however that Roma are more widely available in North America. I use fresh tomatoes only in the summer when they are in season. During the rest of the year I prefer to use a good brand of canned tomatoes.


      1. Absolutely. I never underestimate the value of a can of really high quality tomatoes. Rather a few pennies more. And I do suppose we are lucky here in Italy as we are spoiled for choice in summer in terms of fresh. Roma are ok, but San Marzano rule. mmmm I can smell the aroma now. We just need a couple of more months and a little sun.



  5. Delicious!!! I used canned San Marzani; in order to give the sauce a somewhat fresher taste I introduced about two cups of whole cherry tomatoes near the end of cooking. I put them in at the end so they would warm up and collapse just a little, just enough to lightly let off their sweetness into the sauce but yet also hold up (just a little) giving a nice fresh texture. My Sicilian side won the day so I put in five nice hot chilis (cayenne), as such it was just as I’ve had in the South of Italy, and as such is the reason why I’m sure the dish is called Alla Puttanesca. Si’? Yep?????? Grazie per la ricetta!!!


  6. If I may add another insight into the making of the “perfect” puttanesca??? A while back in Napoli I enjoyed the recipe three or four times at different restaurants, twice the olives were not pitted which I found very much to my liking, hence I now do as such at home. Since the olives are not pitted they seem to hold a lot of their flavor, though some could say that the process of pitting allows the olive flavor to permeate the sauce, it’s your choice. Of course guests who are not familiar with whole olives in sauces should be advised as to confronting pits . Thank you so very much for your wonderful recipes!!!
    P.S. Now days when making puttanesca I like using a variety of different colored olives, a very nice visual even though not authentic, but the culinary field is all about permutations, si’?.


  7. Hi GB, thank you for your lovely comment.
    I personally think that the secret is more in the quality of the olives, which varies greatly, than in the presence of the pit in the sauce. I do cook my sauce very briefly, less than 10 min, because I want to preserve the flavor of the other ingredients and not boil it away. I have also made the puttanesca with un-pitted olives, but my husband is a dentist aficionado, if you know what I mean and it can become a very expensive pasta!


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