Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca -

Speaking of having no time to cook… Every cook needs a few quick pasta dishes up her sleeve. Something you can throw together to make a quick side dish, when the rest of your meal is a bit… plain. Sliced chicken and a pile of vegetables, a piece of broiled fish, there are many fine foods that can use a more interesting companion on the plate. (Or, Italian style, as a primo, or first course.) And Spaghetti alla Puttanesca is definitely interesting!

Well – I mean the flavor is… but… This wasn’t one of the dishes that my Italian friends learned from Nonna… it’s not one I ate in Family Restaurants in Italian neighborhoods. It turned up relatively recently, from Italy. (For that matter, it only turned up in Italy in the mid 20th Century… definitely Post War.) The legend, which people love to tell, is that prostitutes developed it as a way to fit dinner in between customers. (After all, “puttana” means whore, right?? And it’s not as if anyone else needs to eat in a hurry…)

I’m afraid I find the other version a little more plausible… See, the word is also a common vulgarity for trash, garbage, stuff… We use other vulgar words the same way in English. “Clean up that ____!” or “… and there was so much ____  piled on it!” And finally – “Just toss in some of that ____ from the pantry…” This story says that some customers came into a restaurant just before closing, and insisted on being fed, even though the cook was out of almost everything. “Just throw some puttana together…” they said…

Pasta Puttanesca -

I don’t know if I believe in a specific night or customer either – this looks to me like the sort of meal restaurant cooks make for themselves at the end of the night out of odds and ends from the mise en place that weren’t used. (What Italian kitchen doesn’t have these ingredients?) Then, one night… “I have to think of a pasta special for tomorrow.” “Why don’t you just serve this puttana we’re eating – I bet people would like it! I sure do…”

Whoever first made it, and why, the basic concept remains – it’s a sauce you can throw together in a few minutes from panty items and kitchen staples. Onion and garlic, canned tomatoes, and some combination  (it seems to vary) of anchovies, capers, olives, hot pepper…  all Stuff I have in my kitchen.

Some "trash" from the pantry -

So why have I been buying it in jars?

Most of the time, I make my own pasta sauce. But one commercial convenience food that I do keep on hand is a jar or two of decent pasta sauce – it can serve as the basis of a fast meal, or make a side dish as  above. And so it makes sense to have a long simmered marinara for that use – but why would I buy a jar version of something that takes little effort and less time? So now I make my own.

OK – first put on the water for your spaghetti… Spaghetti is traditional for this kind of quick primo, though other shapes certainly may be used. I’m going to assume that you will use the pasta you prefer, cooked in the method you prefer. (I assume this for two reasons – one is that you will…  and the other is that I have not yet found a method I’m happy with for gluten free pasta. When I do, you’ll hear about it. But meanwhile…)

Melting anchoies into sauce -

I heated a large pan and put in a glug of olive oil (rather than the small dribble I usually use…)  Oil is an ingredient, here, not just a cooking medium, it adds richness. Then I chopped a small onion, and stirred it into the oil, and used a garlic press to press in a couple of cloves of garlic. (This would all be even faster if I had the precooked onion in the freezer – but I did not.)

Then I added anchovies. They often come in little cans which are mildly annoying, as you often use just one or two at a time and then you’re stuck with the open can… so when I saw a jar I got it. When mashed, anchovies really melt into hot oil, so you get just the flavor but no obvious bits of fish, and they add a wonderful umami – savory – rich note of flavor. You can vary the amount you use – I used 4 here and could distinguish the flavor – with two, there is just that depth but nothing specific. And you can leave them out altogether – I gather the list of ingredients is regional (and personal) and there are areas where few people use them in this recipe. I dropped them into the hot oil, used the back of my spoon to mash them, and stirred the paste into the onions.

Then I added tomato. Sometimes I might use a can of diced tomatoes, this time I used half a can of crushed tomatoes (and reserved the other half for tomato soup the next day.) I poured it in and let it simmer just while the pasta cooked.

The other ingredients are olives, capers, crushed red pepper, cheese. You can add the pepper at the beginning with the onion – I opted to sprinkle some on top at the end (to vary the amount in each serving.) The others can be stirred into the sauce before pouring it over pasta, but I wanted to toss the pasta in the sauce, and opted to add the flavorings after that, to distribute them better. They do not need to cook in the sauce…  And I used plain canned olives because everyone can easily get them, you can readily keep a can on the shelf, the rest are nice in salads or Mexican dishes… If you have better olives – cured, in oil, whatever – by all means use them (just make sure you remove the pits!) You can also use green olives, if that’s what you have. Then there are capers. I’m actually making headway in my Lifetime Supply of Capers… (I had a jar and Rich had a jar and…)  I tossed the al dente pasta in the sauce and stirred it well (and let it thicken a little from the starch on the pasta.) Then I tossed in the olives and capers, and used the tongs to toss it all.

Tossing in the trash -

Then I served. We each added grated romano cheese and red pepper flakes on top to taste. (OK, ideally we’d grate the cheese fresh – often we do. Long story, but I have this container of decent, though not great, cheese – I’m using it for quick meals like this.)

Note – by Italian standards, this is Too Much Sauce for that amount of pasta. They use really good pasta, and barely moisten it with sauce… so this recipe could dress up to a pound of spaghetti, if you want, though I used it for only half a pound. And a pound could easily serve 6-8 people as a primo – since you would also be eating bread, and perhaps potatoes with the meat and vegetables in the secundo and you don’t want to get too full… I just had some plain chicken breast with it, and this was really the bulk of our dinner – so half a pound served just two of us. It all depends on how you will serve it.

And when I don’t feel like wrestling with gf spaghetti, I just serve the sauce over polenta, which is another food I will buy (in the convenient shelf stable tube) for quick pantry meals, though I also do make it.  Or I use rice. One of these days I’ll try making gnocchi… (though that would not be as quick!) This may just be a place where I go with what works, instead of fighting what does not, since the pasta I grew up with had a texture that came specifically from the high gluten content of the durum semolina used to make it. I learn and adapt…

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca -


Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca - use pantry staples to throw together a savory sauce in the time it takes for the pasta to cook.
Cook Time 15 minutes
Total Time 15 minutes


  • 1/2 lb. spaghetti or more, cooked
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1 small onion chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2-4 anchovy filets
  • 1 1/2 c crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 c sliced pitted olives
  • 2 T capers
  • red pepper flakes
  • Romano cheese


  • Cook the spaghetti.
  • Heat oil in a large pan, and add chopped onion and minced garlic. Saute until soft.
  • Add anchovies. Use the back of a spoon to crush them into the oil to form a paste, and stir into the onion mixture.
  • Add tomatoes, simmer briefly (until pasta is cooked and drained.)
  • Toss al dente pasta into the sauce, stir. Add olives and capers. Stir.
  • Serve, and pass grated cheese and red pepper flakes.
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!



2 thoughts on “Spaghetti alla Puttanesca”

  • Yeah, given how often I tell people I prefer “garbage pizza” (*lots* of meats and veggies — yay for “Toppings for Touchdowns” specials!), I think I’m going to have to shift my belief from prostitutes to leftovers here.

    • Right.

      It just looks so much like after hours concoctions… which I, personally, think is much more interesting than the other story. Something truly wonderful from Nothing!

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