I’m a little embarrassed to admit that the first time I ever heard of Pasta Puttanesca was in the movie Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I’m pretty sure that outs me as a food amateur and not a real foodie but, oh well. Anyway, in the movie, the orphan kids make a batch of Pasta Puttanesca out of random things they find in the kitchen, including loose pieces of pasta that were floating around in an old, dirty, cluttered kitchen drawer. Somehow it still looked delicious and I instantly wanted to make some.
The name Pasta Puttanesca loosely translates to “whore’s pasta.” Why? Because it’s delicious and cheap… no, I’m kidding (kinda). The theory is that this simple dish was a favorite of people who were so dirt poor that they had to live in (and work) the streets. It uses ingredients that were inexpensive and abundant in Italy back in the day like olives, anchovies, pasta, tomatoes and capers. In true Budget Bytes fashion, the recipe uses super potent ingredients sparingly to pack a flavor punch.
If you fear the anchovy, as many do, please don’t toss this recipe aside. Many Italian recipes use anchovies sparingly to add just a hint of flavor. They are cooked down until they literally disintegrate and all that is left is a nice, nondescript, umami base note in the flavor profile. I promise.
Pasta puttanesca is the original poor man's meal. Inexpensive pasta gets a flavor kick from ingredients like anchovies, olives, and garlic.
- 1 lb pasta, your preference $0.79
- 2 Tbsp olive oil $0.21
- 1 small yellow onion $0.57
- 4 cloves garlic $0.16
- 3 filets anchovies $0.56
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes $0.05
- 28 oz can diced or crushed tomatoes $2.00
- 10-15 kalamata olives $1.76
- 1/3 bunch fresh basil or 1 tsp. dry $0.49
- 2 Tbsp capers $0.50
- 1/2 Tbsp brown sugar, optional $0.02
Fill a large pot with water (about 2/3 full) and bring to a rolling boil. Cook the pasta according to the package directions (boil 5-7 minutes or until al dente). Drain in a colander.
While the pasta boils, dice the onion and mince the garlic. Add the olive oil to a large skillet and heat it over medium. Add the onion, garlic, anchovy filets and red pepper flakes to the oil in the skillet and sauté until softened (5 minutes).
Add the canned tomatoes, roughly chopped kalamata olives, capers and roughly chopped basil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the pasta is done cooking (about 10 minutes). If the sauce has too much of a bite for you, add 1/2 Tbsp. of brown sugar to mellow it out.
Once the pasta is cooked and drained, add it to the skillet with the puttanesca sauce. Stir well to combine. Alternatively, place cooked past on a plate and top with a scoop of puttanesca sauce.
Scroll down for notes on ingredient pricing.
Step By Step Photos
Begin to boil water to cook the pasta. While the water for your pasta is boiling, chop the onion and mince the garlic. Cook them in a large skillet with olive oil, red pepper flakes and the anchovy filets.
After about 5 minutes of cooking over medium heat, the anchovies will have disintegrated and the onions and garlic should be soft. The anchovies may smell strong during this step but it goes away, promise.
I spent a little more for these Italian canned tomatoes and they were pretty worth it. The juice/sauce was thick and there were whole basil leaves in there with them. Anyway, add the tomatoes and stir it all together.
Roughly chop the kalamatas (making sure all the pits are out) and add them to the sauce along with the capers and chopped basil. You only need 10-15 olives so try to find a grocery store that has an olive bar where you can get just what you need rather than buying a whole $5 jar.
Here is the finished sauce. If it is a little too harsh and briney, you can add 1/2 Tbsp of brown sugar to mellow it out a bit.
Add the cooked and drained pasta to the skillet (or serve the pasta then spoon the sauce over top).
Stir it all together… it can be difficult to get it all evenly mixed so you may want to spoon some of the toppings (they aggregate around the edges of the pan) over each plate of pasta.
I sprinkled a bit of chopped parsley over top for color but that’s totally optional.
NOTE: The trick to making this dish at a reasonable price is finding the olives, anchovies and capers at a decent price. New Orleans has a large population of Italians and Italian cuisine is a huge part of the food culture here. Consequently, I had a lot of options at the grocery store. I’ve never seen so many types of capers on one shelf before. Also, if you can find a grocery store with an olive bar (a lot of large grocers have this now, it’s trendy), you can buy the kalamatas in the quantity that you need instead of a whole jar.
Even if you don’t have a grocery store that carries a lot of Italian ingredients, you could probably make this dish fairly cheap. I paid a lot for some special tomatoes but a 28 oz. can of diced tomatoes (generic) can usually be bought for just over a dollar. Also, I grossly over paid for my onion. Onions were $1.37/lb. at this grocery store but I usually pay a mere $0.55/lb. at the produce market.
Lastly, I used fresh basil because I had some left over from my Garden Tomato Soup. Had I not already purchased it for another recipe, I probably would have taken the cheap route and used dried. Of course, the flavor of fresh basil is 10x better but I rarely use a whole bunch and I hate to see the rest go to waste (because it’s delicious AND expensive). I only buy it if I know that I have at least two recipes lined up to use it.
As always, price the ingredients at various markets before making the dish. Blindly buying ingredients will usually cost you.