Pasta Puttanesca

$4.37 recipe / $0.87 serving
by Beth - Budget Bytes
4.88 from 8 votes
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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.

A large skillet full of pasta puttanesca, with a pasta fork in the side, anchovies and olives next to the skillet.

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.

A bowl of Pasta Puttanesca with a fork twirled in the center. Garlic and parsley on the side.

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Pasta Puttanesca Recipe

4.88 from 8 votes
Pasta puttanesca is an original budget-friendly meal with inexpensive pasta that gets a flavor kick from ingredients like anchovies, olives, and garlic.
A skillet full of pasta puttanesca with anchovies and olives on the side
Servings 5 3oz. pasta plus sauce
Prep 5 mins
Cook 20 mins
Total 25 mins

Ingredients

  • 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)

Instructions 

  • 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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Nutrition

Serving: 3oz. pasta with sauceCalories: 514.58kcalCarbohydrates: 85.34gProtein: 15.84gFat: 13.18gSodium: 950.26mgFiber: 6.72g
Read our full nutrition disclaimer here.
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Scroll down for the step by step photos!

Front view of a bowl of Pasta Puttanesca with a fork twirling the pasta.

How to Make Spaghetti Alla Puttanesca – Step By Step Photos

Tin of anchovies

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.

Open tin of anchovies in oil

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.

Onions garlic anchovies and oil in a skillet

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.

Crushed tomatoes pouring into skillet

Once the onions are soft, add one 28oz. can of crushed tomatoes to the skillet.

Season sauce with kalamata olives, capers, basil, and crushed red pepper

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.

Cooked spaghetti in a colander

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.

Simmered Puttanesca Sauce in the skillet

Once the puttanesca sauce has simmered for about 15 minutes, the flavors will have blended, become deeper, and slightly less acidic.

Add cooked spaghetti to puttanesca sauce in the skillet

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.

Finished pasta puttanesca in the skillet with a pasta fork

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.

A large bowl of pasta puttanesca with a fork twirled in the center and a bowl of olives on the side.

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  1. Tasty, simple recipe. Only giving 4 stars because buying capers, kalmata olives, and anchovies just for this recipe adds up (unless you are able to use them for other recipes).

  2. Hi Beth! I learned of Puttanesca the same way! I loved that series as a little girl. I can’t wait to try this recipe as it is my favorite Italian sauce. I will be using fresh ingredients from my garden—including freshly crushed tomatoes. Do you think this sauce will freeze well?

    1. It should freeze very well! Make sure the sauce has cooled before you add it to a freezer safe container, and remove as much air as possible. You can also cover the top of the sauce surface with wax paper to diminish exposure to air. XOXO

  3. A good Puttanesca never disappoints!  I will definitely try this recipe, even though I already make two Pasta Puttanescas which my family enjoys – one of which includes a ‘specific’ red wine.  The flavor of Pasta Putanesca is phenomenal!  My non-Italian friends were completely blown away while enjoying Pasta Puttanesca in my home a while ago.  Thanks for posting this lovely recipe, especially since not many non-Italians have ever heard of it.  Personally, I don’t know why it’s NOT on any Italian Restaurant menus, ….Hey, Olive Garden!

  4. Made this again and love it! In addition to the recipe I use 5 small rip vine tomatoes cut up, a small can of tomato paste, and mushrooms. I use yellow spaghetti squash noodles instead of pasta for my weight loss challenge . I never make it the same always adding changing it up but it always comes out great, I use a lot of Garlic, Anchovies, Spanish Capers, and Kalamata Olives. It’s so hard to let it simmer my mouth can’t wait to taste

  5. Hmm. I bet this would work in an electric pressure cooker (aka Instant Pot). Just needs a little work on the liquids and the layering…

  6. I’m going to give this 5 preemptive stars because I know what the finished product will taste like: delicious.

    Puttanesca has been a family go-to favorite of our for decades. When nothing else tastes appealing….

    But THREE anchovy fillets? That’s all? C’mon, Beth! Use at least half the tin if not the entire thing. If you’re going to go briny go BIG! :-)

    1. I totally agree with this suggestion….I always use the whole tin of anchovies in this recipe because the anchovies kinda dissolve when cooked….that way is tastes good! Otherwise, this is just a bland tomato sauce…

  7. Your origin of why this sauce is called Puttanesca is spot on and I wanted to include what someone said on a thread who is from Rome to further confirm the history behind the name:

    I’am from Rome Italy – where there is an entire neighborhood called after a “relatively” famous prostitute, apparently favored by the 1%ers of the time – . While recipes for Pasta alla Puttanesca vary slightly, my comment has more to do with the origin of the name of this special – and delicious – sauce. It is called that way because it includes the only ingredients that would be available to a “Puttana” of the time, in order for her to prepare a midnight little meal for her patron, after their night of frolics – and yes there was only one patron per night for a reputable, “supported” mistress (we are not talking about brothels here, where meals for clients were not offered) – so… no attracting clients by the way of the appealing smell. It only includes items that were shelf-stable, preserved pantry essentials, and nothing fresh at all (which is understandable, considering that the “Puttane” of the time were not allowed to leave the house during the day and go to the market to get fresh produce and ingredients). I am sure that there will be people who disagree with this explanation. Unfortunately, the sauce is Italian and this is the Italian popular cultural meaning attached to it.”

  8. I loved making this and enjoyed it more than I thought I would considering I prefer a creamy tomato sauce that is pureed. I don’t like chunky sauces unless it’s a meat or mushroom sauce. Or both. But I made this for my wife who often orders this in Italian restaurants. For me, it did have a bite, while she thought it didn’t have enough of a bite, but she liked it anyway and said it was a keeper. In order to subdue the bite for me, I added some leftover homemade heavy cream, about 62 grams, not much at all and I thought it really kicked it up a notch for my taste. I know, I know, this is puttanesca, not a cream sauce, but even my wife said she liked it and to add it in next time I make it again.
    I could only get about 6 servings out of this, not 8.
    I also loved the anchovies and I had a few from the tin can before I even started cooking. For those who cringe over anchovies, if you like a Caesar salad, then you should like anchovies because that’s what it’s made with.

  9. Leaving a review because I saw it only got 3 votes so far! I’ve been making this for a few years as one of my monthly staples!! so delish, about to make it right now! I add cheese, sometimes a little cream, parsley and sometimes zucchini or whatever veg I have on hand