This spaghetti alla puttanesca recipe from southern Italy is one that I’ve been making for over 25 years. Infused with the flavours of garlic, capers, olives, anchovies, and crushed red pepper, it makes a piquant tomato sauce like no other.
My spaghetti alla puttanesca recipe will make you a rustic pasta dish from southern Italy with a piquant sauce that is enlivened with the flavours of garlic, capers, olives, anchovies, and crushed red pepper. It makes a tomato sauce like no other and is one of our best pasta recipes.
Like my ragu alla Bolognese recipe, this spaghetti alla puttanesca recipe is one that I’ve been making for well over 25 years. It’s my go-to pasta when Lara and I are in need of comfort food and is easily one of our favourite comfort food recipes.
It’s a great year-round pasta recipe, too. Our northern hemisphere neighbours in the midst of summer can serve a smaller portion with a Mediterranean style salad, while a big hot bowl will warm up our Australian friends in the southern hemisphere in the midst of an extremely chilly winter.
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca Recipe for a Piquant Southern Italian Pasta
Spaghetti alla puttanesca is undeniably one of the most intense of Italian pasta sauces and, along with spaghetti carbonara (recipe coming soon), is a weeknight staple for us when we want a quick, late-night supper. Spaghetti alla puttanesca also happens to be a spicy pasta with a saucy history.
The Saucy History of Spaghetti alla Puttanesca Recipe
Spaghetti alla puttanesca is also called pasta alla puttanesca or ‘whore’s pasta’ – ‘puttanesca’ roughly translating to ‘in the style of the whore’ – and there are myriad origin theories that credit the ‘ladies of the night’ with its creation.
One story goes that prostitutes made spaghetti alla puttanesca in between clients because it was quick and easy to make.
An elaboration of this story claims this was because the women had the ingredients on hand so didn’t have to leave their room, and that the women used spaghetti alla puttanesca to lure potential clients to their rooms.
Another theory is that the dish was created on the island of Ischia off Naples where painter Eduardo Maria Colucci invented the dish, and his nephew Sandro Petti modified it and claimed it as his own.
Petti’s story is that late one night he had hungry guests at his restaurant so he whipped up a pasta with whatever he had left in the kitchen: tomatoes, olives, capers, etc.
Petti was apparently going to call his dish ‘spaghetti alla puttanata’. ‘Puttanata’ roughly translates to ‘shit’ and Petti was referring to the shit he had in his kitchen at the time. But he renamed it spaghetti alla puttanesca – much to the chagrin of the local bishop when he put it on his menu board outside his restaurant.
Tips to Making this Spaghetti Alla Puttanesca Recipe
A couple of points on this spaghetti alla puttanesca recipe for those who are new to this piquant Southern Italian classic. Firstly, the sauce doesn’t taste like anchovies as the anchovies are ‘mushed’ into the sauce.
It’s the combination of all of the ingredients that make this an umami bomb that is balanced by the sweetness of the tomatoes. If you’re making this for guests who don’t like anchovies, just don’t tell them that there are any in the sauce. Ask if guests have allergies of course, but an allergic reaction to anchovies is very rare…
Secondly, leave the Parmigiano Reggiano in the fridge. Extra olive oil and more chilli flakes are fine, but the dish does not need the extra umami hit of Parmigiano Reggiano.
Some spaghetti alla puttanesca recipes do not include onion, but almost every recipe includes garlic. Some recipes include dried oregano, but I find it an unnecessary addition to any dish. Some recipes also add tomato paste, which is a worthwhile addition if your tomato sauce lacks body.
A lot of recipes add parsley or basil as a garnish. I much prefer fresh basil which to me is more in harmony with the other ingredients.
As usual, the questions I most get asked when I serve this dish is how much water is needed to cook the pasta, how much salt to use, and should olive oil be used to stop the pasta from sticking.
How much water and salt is calculated by a nifty formula I call ‘-x10 +x10’. Out of the three elements we are woking with our known quantity is the pasta per serving. We use 125 grams of pasta per serving. So for two servings we have 250 grams of dry pasta.
The amount of salt should be one tenth of the amount of pasta, so in our case that’s 25 grams. The amount of water is 10 times the amount of pasta so 2.5 litres of water is all you need.
Olive oil should go nowhere near your pasta water. What stops pasta sticking together is water that’s on a good rolling boil. Once you have that, throw in the pasta and stir. Put the lid on for a minute and stir again. Remove the pasta from the water at one minute before the cooking time on the packet, and add it to the sauce.
Spaghetti Alla Puttanesca Recipe
- 250 g spaghetti
- 200 g tinned tomatoes
- 2-4 anchovy fillets
- 60 g black olives - sliced (Gaeta olives preferrably)
- 20 g capers
- 40 ml olive oil
- 30 g minced red onion
- 1 clove garlic - sliced finely
- 1 tsp chilli powder - to personal heat perference
- ½ cup basil leaves - torn
- Sauté the onions in the olive oil. When translucent, add the garlic.
- Add the anchovies, mush them with a fork and sweat until the anchovies dissolve into the sauce.
- Add the tomatoes and chilli and reduce to a thick sauce.
- When reduced to a thick sauce add the olives and the capers.
- Make your pasta! Preferably spaghetti.