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Spaghetti alla Puttanesca: leave it to the Italians to craft a magical dinner out of a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. Garlic, olives, anchovies, tomatoes, and chili pepper come together in this lightning fast recipe that takes eating well to a new level.
But what ingredients they are: chopped tomatoes— fresh or canned, whatever you have— simmered with briny capers, lots of garlic, a few anchovies thrown in for good measure, and a pinch of red pepper flakes to bring it all into focus for one glorious bowl of spaghetti.
Even if you’re not an anchovy fan, this spaghetti alla puttanesca recipe just might become one of your weeknight favorites. Mangia!
Making a double batch to get through a crazy week? Click and slide the number next to “servings” on the recipe card below to adjust the ingredients to match how many you’re feeding—the recipe does the math for you, it’s that easy.
What is the Spaghetti alla Puttanesca origin?
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca is a relatively recent culinary invention, dating from the middle of the twentieth century out of the Campania region of Italy.
While the true origin of Puttanesca is debated, one of the stories involves a restaurant owner who needed to feed his last table of diners at closing time. All he had was a few tomatoes, a couple olives, and capers, so he threw them in the pan and the rest is food history.
What does Spaghetti alla Puttanesca mean?
Since you’re asking, Spaghetti alla Puttanesca translates literally to prostitute’s spaghetti. ‘Puttana’ in Italian means prostitute, but don’t let that deter you from making it.
Despite its racy name, it’s probably more due to an Italian colloquialism, ‘una puttanata qualsiasi’ meaning “any old garbage” than being the preferred meal of sex workers. When it’s late and you’re hungry and all you have is some stuff in the pantry, you throw what you have together and serve it over pasta. Voila!
Can you make Spaghetti alla Puttanesca without capers?
Capers are the little pickled blossoms of a French shrub. With some people, it’s a love-hate thing. It’s your dinner, so if you detest capers, you don’t have to eat them. However, if you’ve never had them, you owe it to yourself to try them, especially in puttanesca sauce!
What are the best anchovies for Spaghetti alla Puttanesca?
I look for good quality, olive oil-packed anchovies in a little jar so you can keep them stored well, but you can also try a generous squirt of anchovy paste, sold in big toothpaste-like tubes at specialty grocery stores or online. It keeps forever in the refrigerator and is always handy for adding a little umami pow! to your sauce. One ¼ teaspoon anchovy paste is equal to one anchovy filet.
Of course, I recommend doubling up on the fish if you adore anchovies. A little extra never hurt anyone.
Can you make Spaghetti alla Puttanesca vegan?
There is no reason whatsoever that you can’t omit the anchovies in the recipe to make a vegan version of puttanesca. No one is going to ring your doorbell and report you to the Italian authorities, I promise. Add some extra olives to make up for it, or if you have it, a little Japanese miso paste.
What is the best pasta for Spaghetti alla Puttanesca?
This recipe calls for spaghetti, but it’s certainly not the end-all, be-all of pastas. Choosing a good pasta depends a lot on the qualities of the sauce itself, which is what sticks to the pasta and acts as the delivery vehicle for the sauce. You can use your favorite shape instead of spaghetti: linguine, bucatini, penne, or shells.
As long as you’re eating well, you’re doing okay!
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca
- In a large Dutch oven or stock pot, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add garlic and cook until garlic has turned golden, but not scorched, about 5 minutes. Remove garlic and discard.
- Stir in capers, anchovy fillets, tomatoes, and chile. Heat to boiling, reduce heat, and simmer uncovered until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes. Stir in olives and keep warm.
- Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water and 1 tablespoon salt to boil. Add spaghetti and cook until al dente, about 9 to 10 minutes. Drain well and add to sauce mixture, tossing pasta until evenly coated.
Meggan Hill is a classically-trained chef and professional writer. Her meticulously-tested recipes and detailed tutorials bring confidence and success to home cooks everywhere. Meggan has been featured on NPR, HuffPost, FoxNews, LA Times, and more.
Actually, the story I heard was that the next day after the bride’s wedding night, the bed sheet was hung on the balcony with the red spot on it to show the bride was a virgin!