Spaghetti Puttanesca (Spaghetti With Capers, Olives, and Anchovies) Recipe (2024)

Why It Works

  • Using a low volume of water for the pasta increases the water's starchiness, which will help to bind the sauce.
  • Finishing the spaghetti in the sauce coats each noodle with flavor.

Something about late-summer weather really makes me want to cook dishes requiring minimal time, effort, and cleanup, whether that'scacio e pepeorpasta with cherry tomato sauce. Let's add spaghetti puttanesca to the list. The modern, classic Southern Italian pasta dish, flavored with garlic, anchovies, capers, olives, and tomatoes, is one of my favorite eat-it-by-myself meals—it's made 100% from pantry staples, it packs a powerful flavor punch, and, let's be honest, you probably don't want to hang out with someone who's been eating anchovies and garlic, even if you've been partaking of the same.

Spaghetti Puttanesca (Spaghetti With Capers, Olives, and Anchovies) Recipe (1)

Weeknight Puttanesca Starts With Garlic Oil

A pasta sauce that cooks in less time than it takes to boil the pasta is a weeknight savior. In Rome, that might becarbonaraorcacio e pepe. Head further south, and you'll find puttanesca.

"Puttanesca" literally translates to "in the style of prostitutes," supposedly because the pungent aromas of garlic, anchovies, capers, and olives tossed with pasta were how Neapolitan sex workers would lead customers to their doors. This is one of those stories that seems, in the words of Douglas Adams, apocryphal or at least wildly inaccurate.

Spaghetti Puttanesca (Spaghetti With Capers, Olives, and Anchovies) Recipe (2)

The first step in pasta puttanesca is very similar topasta withaglio e olio(garlic and olive oil): flavoring plenty of good extra-virgin olive oil by slowly sizzling garlic and chili flakes in it. Puttanesca ups the pungency factor a few notches by adding anchovies to that mix. You can either thinly slice or finely chop the garlic, depending on your mood—honestly, I use both ways equally often—but the anchovies should be chopped quite finely so that they dissolve into the oil as they cook.

Puttanesca Sauce Is All About Proper Prep

Normally, I'm all for using the garlic press, the Microplane, or the grater to mince garlic rapidly for dishes in which it will be only briefly cooked with other ingredients. But for a dish like this, for which you want to really deeply flavor the oil from the get-go, garlic that is pressed or grated ends up burning well before it can infuse the oil.

In our guide on buying and preparing anchovies,we mentioned that in some applications—particularly those in which anchovy fillets will be served mostly intact, like aNiçoise salad—whole anchovies packed in salt are preferable. But for applications in which the anchovies are going to be dissolved, oil-packed fillets will do just fine. That's what I use here.

Spaghetti Puttanesca (Spaghetti With Capers, Olives, and Anchovies) Recipe (3)

Chopping the capers and olives is probably the most difficult part of the prep for this dish, and I admit it can be a little tedious the first few times you try—those things just don't like to sit still! But follow ourknife skills guide to chopping capers and olives, and you should have no issues.

Once the garlic and anchovies have had a bit of time to get to know each other and the garlic starts to take on a slight tan, in go the olives and capers. The tomatoes should go into the pan immediately after. This will instantly stop the garlic and anchovies from over-browning (you don't want them to turn bitter). I use canned San Marzano tomatoes that I break up by squeezing them between my fingers in a bowl, resulting in a nice mix of purée and juicy chunks, then bring the whole thing to a simmer.

A Low-Water Boil and Saucy Finish for Better Spaghetti

Meanwhile, I get the spaghetti cooking, using a 12-inch skillet or a sauté pan; there's no need to waste energy, time, and water bringing a huge pot to a boil (especially in water-strapped California). In fact, the dish comes out even better with the low-water method of pasta cooking, as it increases the concentration of starch in the water, which will help the sauce thicken and cling to the noodles later on.

To finish the pasta, you'll want to fish your spaghetti out a little early and transfer it to the simmering sauce to finish cooking. This will improve the flavor of the pasta itself and it'll enter what Daniel refers to as "pasta bullet time." That is, the pasta finishes cooking drastically slower in the sauce than in the straight-up water, which gives you finer control over hitting that perfect al dente mark.

One other thing you will want to do is make sure to add a few spoonfuls of that starchy pasta cooking water in order to help the sauce come together. When you first add the spaghetti to the pan of sauce, it'll look loose and watery. But simmer it hard for a moment while tossing, stirring, and adding pasta water to keep it moist, and the sauce will tighten right up, coating each strand of spaghetti in a thin sheen of flavor.

Some purists may claim that cheese has no place in puttanesca. I claim that there is a seat reserved at the table for cheese in every conceivable gathering known to man. Once the sauce is properly emulsified, I add a handful of finely grated Pecorino Romano—Parmesan would also work fine here if that's what you've got. A little bit of minced fresh parsley, some salt and pepper (go easy on the salt, since the other ingredients already add a ton), a final drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil for some fresh, grassy flavor, and our work is done.

On days when I feel like turning thisprimo piattointo a full-on meal, I'll stir in a can of good-quality olive oil–packed tuna. The flavors meld perfectly with everything else going on in the pan.

Spaghetti Puttanesca (Spaghetti With Capers, Olives, and Anchovies) Recipe (5)

There's no need to stand on ceremony here. This is a quick dish that tastes great served or eaten directly out of the pan you cooked it in, but plates and extra grated cheese are a nice touch.

But, truth be told, puttanesca tastes best when your senses have been slightly impaired and the whole thing is sloppy, there's more than a bit too much sauce (both on the pasta and on my camera), and the spaghetti is slightly overcooked. Man, does it hit the spot.

February 2016

Recipe Details

Spaghetti Puttanesca (Spaghetti With Capers, Olives, and Anchovies) Recipe

Cook20 mins

Active15 mins

Total20 mins

Serves2to 3 servings


  • 6 tablespoons (90ml) extra-virgin olive oil, divided

  • 4 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced or finely chopped by hand (see notes)

  • 4 to 6 anchovy fillets, finely chopped (1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons)

  • Large pinch red pepper flakes

  • 1/4 cup capers, drained and chopped (about 2 ounces; 60g) (see notes)

  • 1/4 cup chopped pitted black olives (about 2 ounces; 60g) (see notes)

  • 1 cup (225g) whole peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, roughly broken up by hand (about half a 14-ounce can)

  • One 5-ounce (140g) can oil-packed tuna (optional)

  • Kosher salt

  • 8 ounces (225g) dried spaghetti

  • Small handful minced fresh parsley leaves

  • 1 ounce (30g) finely grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


  1. In a medium skillet, combine 4 tablespoons (60ml) oil, garlic, anchovies, and red pepper flakes. Cook over medium heat until garlic is very lightly golden, about 5 minutes. (Adjust heat as necessary to keep it gently sizzling.) Add capers and olives and stir to combine.

    Spaghetti Puttanesca (Spaghetti With Capers, Olives, and Anchovies) Recipe (6)

  2. Add tomatoes, stir to combine, and bring to a bare simmer. If using, stir in canned tuna, flaking it gently with a fork. Remove from heat.

    Spaghetti Puttanesca (Spaghetti With Capers, Olives, and Anchovies) Recipe (7)

  3. Meanwhile, in a 12-inch skillet, 12-inch sauté pan, or large saucepan of lightly salted boiling water, cook spaghetti until just shy of al dente, about 2 minutes less than package directions.

    Spaghetti Puttanesca (Spaghetti With Capers, Olives, and Anchovies) Recipe (8)

  4. Using tongs, transfer pasta to sauce. Alternatively, drain pasta through a colander, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water. Add drained pasta to sauce.

    Spaghetti Puttanesca (Spaghetti With Capers, Olives, and Anchovies) Recipe (9)

  5. Add a few tablespoons of pasta water to sauce and set over medium-high heat to bring pasta and sauce to a vigorous simmer. Cook, stirring and shaking the pan and adding more pasta water as necessary to keep sauce loose, until pasta is perfectly al dente, 1 to 2 minutes longer. (The pasta will cook more slowly in the sauce than it did in the water.) Remove from heat and stir in remaining olive oil, parsley, and cheese. Season with salt and pepper (be generous with the pepper and scant with the salt—the dish will be plenty salty from the other ingredients). Serve immediately with more grated cheese at the table.

    Spaghetti Puttanesca (Spaghetti With Capers, Olives, and Anchovies) Recipe (10)

Special Equipment

12-inch skillet, large sauté pan, or large saucepan; medium skillet; tongs


I don't recommend using a Microplane, grater, or garlic press in this dish, as the garlic will end up burning before it can really flavor the oil. This is one of those instances where the method of mincing really does matter.

  • Italian
  • Anchovies
  • Pasta Mains
  • Quick Dinners
Spaghetti Puttanesca (Spaghetti With Capers, Olives, and Anchovies) Recipe (2024)


What are the ingredients in a puttanesca sauce? ›

Puttanesca sauce is a sweetly simple sauce made from a delicious combination of tomatoes, black olives, capers, anchovies, onions, garlic, and Italian herbs. The recipe is easy to make, not requiring too much cooking time while still developing a spicy and fragrant taste.

Should I put anchovies in my spaghetti sauce? ›

Despite their reputation, anchovies are not overpowering, at least once cooked. Used with garlic as the start of a fast pasta sauce, they dissolve almost instantly and add a mysteriously meaty complexity that makes the sauce seem as if it had simmered for hours.

Why add anchovies to pasta? ›

In Italian cooking, anchovies are extremely common. They don't add so much of a "fishy" taste as much as a salty, umami punch of flavor. For that, I always keep anchovy paste, oil or filets on hand to give pasta dishes like this a boost of flavor.

What does puttanesca mean in Italian? ›

Puttanesca translates as “in the style of the whore.” The name derives from the Italian word puttana which means whore. Puttana in turn arises from the Latin word putida which means stinking.

What can I use instead of anchovies in puttanesca? ›

What Can I Use Instead Of Anchovy In Puttanesca? There really is no perfect substitute for the anchovies in Puttanesca sauce, but you can use miso paste, fish sauce or even just a little extra salt. Some say seaweed makes for an excellent vegan substitute.

What sauce is made from olives? ›

This quick southern Italian sauce is a pungent, briny collaboration of anchovies, olives, and capers within a chunky tomato base.

Do you rinse canned anchovies? ›

Rinse salt-packed anchovies thoroughly under cold water before using them to get rid of the excess salt.

Do Italians put anchovies in their sauce? ›

Italians are more likely to mince up an anchovy or two and use it in their sauce, rather than fish sauce. You can find fish sauce in Italy, I'm sure, and there might be more than a few people adding a dash or two to their pasta sauces. It's not a bad idea, but the anchovy is more traditional.

Should you cook canned anchovies? ›

By cooking anchovies, they tend to melt into other ingredients, thus losing their faint fishy flavor and spreading a rich, savory flavor to the rest of the dish. Throw a few fillets in with your simmering aromatics when you're cooking a homemade tomato sauce, like marinara or pizza sauce.

Why do anchovies have a bad reputation? ›

The main reason for the fish's bad reputation might be the way it's processed and packaged. For the most part, anchovy filets are cured, packed into barrels or other containers of salt for several months.

Why do Italians put olive oil in pasta water? ›

It's often claimed that adding olive oil to your pasta water will stop the pasta sticking together, but this isn't true. All it'll do is make your pasta slippery, which means it'll be much harder for your sauce to coat the cooked pasta.

Can you taste anchovies in pasta sauce? ›

I use anchovy paste in pasta sauces all the time. I think it really does improve the flavor and can't taste it at all in cooked dishes. I do taste it in uncooked stuff like Caesar salad dressing, not particularly fond of it that way.

What to pair with puttanesca? ›

Pairing puttanesca sauce with rustic Italian reds such as Primitivo or Nero d'Avola would support the “if it grows together it goes together” philosophy. Just keep in mind that the peppery heat of the dish will be amplified by higher alcohol wines.

What is the taste of puttanesca sauce? ›

Puttanesca sauce is very briny. If you're a fan of pickles, capers, and other vinegar based ingredients, you'll probably love Pasta Puttanesca. If you're not a fan of salty-acidic flavors, I wouldn't attempt this one. Stick to a really simple tomato sauce like my 5-Ingredient Butter Tomato Sauce.

What is Italian slang for anchovies? ›

The alici (or acciughe) of Italy are plump, flavourful and among the best in the world.

What does puttanesca sauce taste like? ›

Puttanesca sauce is very briny. If you're a fan of pickles, capers, and other vinegar based ingredients, you'll probably love Pasta Puttanesca. If you're not a fan of salty-acidic flavors, I wouldn't attempt this one. Stick to a really simple tomato sauce like my 5-Ingredient Butter Tomato Sauce.

What does puttanesca taste like? ›

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca tastes like the most bold and intense tomato sauce you've ever tried. In addition two two kinds of tomatoes (paste and peeled whole canned), there are capers, anchovies, olives, and peppers going on as well. It is briny and acidic, garlicky and so very flavorful.

What is puttanesca mix? ›

Puttanesca is also known for the bold herbs used to make the dish. This blend contains classic Italian herbs like parsley, garlic, black olives and dried tomatoes. It also has a bit of chilli in it just to tickle the taste buds!

Is puttanesca good for you? ›

Pasta Puttanesca is packed with tomato nutrition

Fresh and canned tomatoes improve health by reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer. Tomatoes are high in potassium which helps blunt the effect of sodium on blood pressure. So tomatoes lead to healthier blood pressure.

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