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, over 15 years ago. 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. After doing a little research about this classic Italian dish, I was immediately taken with the story behind the recipe and just had to make it for the blog.
Originally posted 7-16-2010, updated 3-8-2020.
What is Pasta Puttanesca?
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. You can read more about the history of pasta puttanesca here.
And while those ingredients are all inexpensive today in America, we can still use them to make a budget-friendly meal. In true Budget Bytes fashion, the recipe uses the super potent ingredients sparingly to pack a flavor punch without driving up the cost too high.
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.
Do the Anchovies Make it Taste Fishy?
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, which when used in small amounts, doesn’t taste fishy. 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.
What Should I Do with the Leftover Anchovies?
As mentioned above, this recipe only uses a small amount of anchovies (3 filets) and even the smallest tin has about four times that much. Leftover anchovies can be transferred to a small resealable container, with extra olive oil added to make sure the anchovies are completely submerged. They can then be stored in the oil-filled container in the refrigerator for months.
To use the extra anchovies, I suggest either making an extra batch of just the puttanesca sauce and freezing it for later, or you can combine anchovies with garlic butter to make an extra savory garlic bread. And if you’re a fan of the potent flavor of anchovies on their own, they go great in salads and on pizza as well.
How to Use Leftover Capers
You’ll likely have leftover capers after making this pasta puttanesca, as well. Leftover capers can be stored, submerged in their brine, in the refrigerator for several months as well. I highly suggest making a batch of Chicken Piccata with your leftover capers, but they’re also great when added to pasta salads, tuna salad, deviled eggs, or potato salad.
Pasta Puttanesca Recipe
- 2 Tbsp olive oil ($0.32)
- 1 yellow onion ($0.32)
- 4 cloves garlic ($0.32)
- 3 anchovy filets ($0.39)
- 1 28oz. can crushed tomatoes ($0.79)
- 1/2 tsp dried basil ($0.05)
- 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper ($0.02)
- 1/2 cup sliced kalamata olives ($0.54)
- 2 Tbsp capers ($0.35)
- 1 lb. spaghetti ($1.09)
- Dice the onion and mince the garlic. Add the olive oil, onion, garlic, and anchovy filets to a large skillet. Sauté the ingredients over medium heat until the onions are soft and the anchovies have dissolved.
- Add the crushed tomatoes to the skillet, along with the basil, crushed red pepper, sliced olives, and capers. Stir to combine, then allow the sauce to come up to a simmer. Once simmering, turn the heat down to low and let the sauce simmer, stirring occasionally, while you cook the pasta.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Once rapidly boiling, add the spaghetti and continue to boil until the pasta is tender (about 7 minutes). Reserve about 1/2 cup of the starchy pasta water before draining the past in a colander.
- Add the cooked and drained pasta to the puttanesca sauce in the skillet (or if your skillet is not big enough, add them both to the large pot used to cook the pasta, heat turned off). Stir to combine the pasta with the sauce. If the pasta becomes dry, add a splash or two of the reserved pasta water. Serve hot.
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Scroll down for the step by step photos!
How to Make Spaghetti Alla Puttanesca – Step By Step Photos
These are the anchovies that I purchased for the Pasta Puttanesca. This small tin has about 4x as many anchovies as will be used in the recipe, and was only $1.57, so not a bad deal. For instructions for storing and using leftover anchovies, see the text before the recipe card.
If you’ve never used anchovies before, this is what they look like on the inside. They are small filets packed in oil. While they do contain bones, the bones are so hair thin and flexible that they just dissolve when you cook with the anchovies.
Now back to the recipe… Dice one onion and mince 4 cloves of garlic. Add 2 Tbsp olive oil to a large skillet along with the onion, garlic, and 3 anchovy filets. Sauté these ingredients over medium heat until the onions are soft. The anchovies will dissolve into the skillet as you sauté.
Once the onions are soft, add one 28oz. can of crushed tomatoes to the skillet.
Also add about 1/2 cup sliced kalamata olives, 2 Tbsp capers, 1/2 tsp dried basil, and 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper. Stir to combine and allow the sauce to come to a simmer. Once it begins simmering, turn the heat down to low and let it continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, as you cook the pasta.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. Once the water reaches a rapid boil, add 1 lb. spaghetti. Continue to boil the spaghetti for about 7 minutes, or until it is tender. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the starchy pasta water, then drain the pasta in a colander.
Once the puttanesca sauce has simmered for about 15 minutes, the flavors will have blended, become deeper, and slightly less acidic.
Add the cooked and drained spaghetti to the skillet with the sauce and stir to combine. If your skillet is not large enough to hold both the pasta and sauce, return the cooked pasta to the large pot it was cooked in (heat turned off), then add the sauce to the pot instead. If the pasta becomes dry, add a splash or two of the starchy pasta cooking water to loosen it up.
Then it’s ready to eat! I garnished with a little chopped parsley just for color, but it isn’t needed for the flavor. If you happen to grow fresh basil, that would make an excellent topping for this pasta.