Pasta Puttanesca

One of my favorite pastas is Pasta Puttanesca. For some reason, I don’t make it very often, because I always seem to be sautéing fresh greens in olive oil and garlic, or something like that, to toss with noodles. But I love all the ingredients in Pasta Puttanesca; capers, olives, anchovies, crushed red peppers, and lots of garlic, so when faced with what to make for dinner the other night, when I didn’t have any vegetables from the market, it became “what’s for dinner.”

The name “puttanesca” fits, because it’s one of the lustiest pasta (or dishes) that I know of. It’s a mélange of robust – or umami? – flavors, using what you have on hand, which is especially handy when you’ve come home from a long trip and haven’t had time to stock your refrigerator, or when you don’t feel like heading to the grocery store. All the ingredients you probably already have in your pantry or refrigerator. And if you don’t, you should.

The name tends to raise some eyebrows. Legend has it that it was made by ladies of the night in Italy, either because it was easy to make with ingredients already on hand (and those of us who are self-employed know how important that can be), or because the smell wafting from their stove was enticing to customers. I know if I was walking by, I’d be curious, too. About the pasta, that is.

I love the smell, and taste, of everything in this dish, from oil-cured olives to the slivers of sizzling garlic. And I also like dried pasta. Back in the 80s or 90s, when fresh pasta became all the rage in the U.S., a lot of people turned their noses up at it. I like fresh pasta, but people eventually realized that fresh and dried pasta are two different beasts, and each has its place. Here, dried pasta works better because it’s sturdy enough to hold its own against the hearty, and hardy, ingredients in the sauce.

Speaking of ingredients you already have on hand, I have a ten-year supply of tomato paste due to misreading a can at the supermarket that was concentré des tomates. I know that means “tomato paste,” but wondered when I was standing in the grocery store aisle, “Surely that can’t be tomato paste? No home cook would buy that much tomato paste at once…” and brought the 28 ounce (800g) can home. When I opened it up, I was faced with a solid mass of very red, and very concentrated, tomato paste.

I didn’t know what to do with it, and I know everyone says, “Freeze it in small portions! That way you can take out only what you need, when you need it…” But my freezer is probably like yours: packed full. Still, I hate throwing things away, even though all those projects take time away from my regular work, which self-employed folks know is more valuable than a €1,59 can of tomato paste, but I am my mother’s son, so I froze it in scoops.

Traditionalists may throw a fit, but I’m not Italian, and I’m not a hooker (and if I was, everyone knows not to mess with them) and used added some of the tomato paste to the pasta sauce. It added a deep richness, and I was happy to be down to fifty-five portions of tomato paste.

As an aside, I’ve been using heavy pans all of my life. Recently I’ve had trouble lifting them. (Doctor Romain said after years of lifting heavy pots as a line cook and baker, my arm is giving out.) I was contacted by someone offering a test pan made by Hestan, which they call NanoBond. I hadn’t heard of the company, but they make commercial stoves and ranges, which raised my interest. The pans are made in Italy, bonded with layers of titanium, which is four times harder than stainless-steel, but much lighter.

So I gave it a go with this pasta and it worked really well, and was much easier to lift. I had to get used to it, since the lightness took some getting used to for me. But it heated very evenly and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked. (Although they are not coated with a non-stick surface, if that’s a concern.) The pans aren’t inexpensive, but I like trying out new things from time to time, further proof I’m not necessarily a traditionalist.

This pasta is a winner, and once you’ve made your first Pasta Puttanesca, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself making the dish whenever you don’t know what to make for dinner, or don’t have anything on hand but capers, olives, and anchovies. And it works well for a cozy dinner for two, whether you’re getting a freebie or not.

Pasta Puttanesca
Print Recipe
2 servings
Use canned plum tomatoes if you can. Fresh tomatoes don't lend the same flavor to this pasta. To get them to the right consistency for the tomato puree called for in the recipe, remove them from the can and crush them with a fork or by hand. Also note that the sliced garlic is added to the oil cold. If you add minced garlic to hot oil, it can burn very quickly.I always rinse capers, whether they are salt-packed or in brine. Then I squeeze them dry before using them. The brine has particular flavor that, to me, distracts from the capers. If using salt-packed anchovies, those should be rinsed as well. Anchovies packed in oil don't need to be rinsed.You can start the pasta before you begin making the sauce, although if making this for the first time, it's probably easier to make the sauce, set it aside, then rewarm it again before adding the warm pasta and a bit of the pasta water, until you get the rhythm down. Make sure to reserve some of the pasta water to finish the pasta in the tangy tomato sauce.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
3-4 anchovy filets, minced
2 tablespoons capers, coarsely chopped
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/3 cup (40g) chopped, pitted black olives, preferably oil cured
1 3/4 cups (14oz can, 390g) tomato puree (see headnote)
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
7 ounces (200g) dried pasta
1. Make the sauce by putting the olive oil, garlic, and minced anchovies in a large, wide skillet. Heat the pan over medium heat, cooking the garlic and anchovies, stirring frequently, until the garlic is lightly browned and the anchovies are very soft and almost melting, about 2 minutes.Meanwhile, heat a large pot of water to cook the pasta in.
2. Add the olives, capers, and red pepper flakes to the skillet, and stir for a minute, then add the tomatoes and tomato paste. Continue to cook, and stir, until the sauce is a deeper red color and the consistency of warm jam, which will take a couple of minutes. You want it wet and loose, but not watery. Remove from heat and set aside.
3. When the pasta water is boiling, add the pasta and cook it until it's al dente. Just before the pasta is ready, rewarm the sauce. Drain the pasta, reserving some of the water, and add the pasta to the sauce warming in the pan, as well as 1 to 2 tablespoons of the reserved pasta water, stirring until the sauce coats the pasta and everything is heated through.

Serving: The pasta doesn't really need any accompaniment so I don't serve it with cheese or another else on top.

Storage: The sauce can be made 2-3 days in advance and refrigerated.

Variations: Some people add a bit of fresh, chopped parsley to the sauce, or dried oregano. I don't, but you're welcome to.


This simple, classic pasta can be made with things you already have on hand!

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71 comments

  • Lisa
    May 18, 2018 4:07pm

    Do you have any suggestions for substitutions for the anchovies? I am a vegetarian and this looks amazing, but I don’t know if leaving them out or trying to find a substitute would be better.

    • May 18, 2018 4:10pm
      David Lebovitz

      Interestingly, I’ve heard people using umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums) in place of anchovies in recipes. I keep umeboshi on hand to add when I cook rice, and you can find them in shops that specialize in Japanese foods.

      • Lisa
        May 18, 2018 4:37pm

        Thanks! I will give it a try.

      • Myrna
        May 19, 2018 12:44am

        I’ve used white miso as a substitute which completely melts into a sauce. I’ll have to try umeboshi as a bit of texture would be nice.

      • Maureen
        May 19, 2018 1:37am

        I never have capers around. Could you suggest some substitute for them?

        • Erin
          May 19, 2018 3:49pm

          I recommend that you go out and get a jar of capers! It’s little and will stay good forever in the fridge, and once you taste them in a recipe like this (also look up chicken piccatta) you’ll be in love. They’re like shallots to me (mysterious onion-garlic mix that transcends onions and garlic). Capers are a mysterious lemony pickley mix that adds brightness and deepness somehow at the same time.

          Ok, there was my ode to capers. Never knew I felt so passionate about them until I wrote this comment! Shoulda known, since I buy pint jars of them at Costco all the time!

      • Ellen
        June 6, 2018 5:16pm

        Thanks for the recipe and the fab photos! About anchovies, what is the difference between semiconservata (on the regular supermarket shelf) and the ones you find in the refrigerated section.

    • low and slow
      May 18, 2018 7:04pm

      Try soy sauce it has the umami that anchovies have.

    • Inca
      May 20, 2018 11:04am

      The tomato paste could be for Egyptians making Koshary. My favourite recipe is the on the Matters of the Belly blog and when I made it I was astounded to see that it called for 500g of tomato paste. Who has that mush tomato paste? So I used a mixture of canned tomatoes and tomato conserva and it was delicious but you would be able to actually follow the recipe.

      • May 21, 2018 12:32pm
        David Lebovitz

        I love Koshary but didn’t realize a recipe could call for that much tomato paste. I read her post and not sure it’s translated right, although I don’t speak Arabic so I could certainly be wrong on that. But I don’t know if you can cook tomato paste “2-3 minutes” since it’s already pretty concentrated. Did you try it and use tomato paste, or sauce?

    • Julia
      May 21, 2018 9:23pm

      I make a vegetarian version of puttanesca sauce similar to this without anchovies and it’s delicious and intensely flavored. I do like to add parsley; sometimes pecorino at the table. This is not traditional, but I also like it with some thinly sliced artichoke hearts simmered in the sauce (I use plain frozen ones, not marinated).

    • Lynn D.
      May 22, 2018 2:17am

      I just use more olives and capers

    • Pmela
      June 2, 2018 11:55pm

      I’m in Japan and umeboshi in/on pasta is heaven! Don’t use too much. Chop it small. Also, adding some cut up nori/seaweed sheets is great too. I often just have pasta with umeboshi and nori!!

  • How do you store your anchovies? Are they packed in oil? When I buy a jar of anchovies packed in oil, I refrigerate after opening and then the oil gets solid and it is hard to get the anchovies out then.

    • May 18, 2018 5:03pm
      David Lebovitz

      I like anchovies packed in salt (these are wonderful) although I’ve never been able to find salt-packed anchovies in Paris, so I get good-quality ones packed in oil. I store mine in the refrigerator. The ones in the grocery store do tend to thicken in the fridge, but the ones shown in the post I bought at a Sicilian food shop and the oil doesn’t get gunky. If it’s hard to get anchovies out of the jar you have, leave it at room temperature for 30 -60 minutes. I found they come out easier that way.

      • Penny at Enjoying The Simple Things
        May 18, 2018 5:20pm

        Thank you!

  • May 18, 2018 5:00pm

    I was just on a trip down an Italian memory lane…it involved a multigenerational family vacation in a villa, and we had cooking lessons from the owners.
    As you point out, a dinner made from all pantry ingredients is a useful thing indeed.
    I think it was Mark Bittman who explained about umami and gave examples of ingredients one can add to add umami to a dish. Anchovies and tomato sauce were on the list (so were mushrooms…).

  • So in LOVE with puttanesca. Definitely one of my very favorites. I enjoy extra anchovies in mine, as well as some roasted peppers for a bit of heat. So distinctive!

  • May 18, 2018 5:17pm

    Hi David,
    for the pasta amount, shouldn’t it be 200g rather than 700?
    (proofreader’s eye)

    OOps! At some point, everyone will be on the same page of grams/ounces, and it’ll be less proofing : ) -dl

  • Thea
    May 18, 2018 5:18pm

    I’ve been making puttanesca for years! My recipe includes parsley, and Italian tuna packed in oil. Total comfort food.

  • Thank you for the recipe.
    Not tried this but love the look of it and the capers cutting through the dish sound perfect.
    Wonder if I can get away with this one with pasta loving daughter no. 2? Fussy is not the word!
    All the best,

  • Maria Purwin
    May 18, 2018 5:21pm

    One of my favorite “go to” pastas. Your recipe is almost identical to mine, which was handed down from my Italian great grandmother to my grandma…well, you get it.

  • Cherstinne
    May 18, 2018 5:24pm

    Can you get flocons de piment rouge -red pepper flakes – in any supermarket in Paris? I cannot find this in my local Monoprix.

    • May 18, 2018 7:51pm

      Try Marks & Spencers. They have spicier condiments as a rule.

    • May 19, 2018 8:28am
      David Lebovitz

      I find them in stores that sell ingredients for Middle Eastern, North African, or Indian cooking. There are a lot of them in neighborhoods like Belleville and La Chapelle. I got these at Velan in the Passage Brady.

  • May 18, 2018 5:33pm

    Great puttanesca recipe! This is one of my favorite quick pasta dishes!

  • May 18, 2018 5:35pm

    One of my go-to pastas and my husband’s favorite. We add Italian sausage to it. I’m not a big anchovy fan so I always melt them in the olive oil first. Love that you also use rigatoni with your!

  • Rafael Ebron
    May 18, 2018 6:21pm

    A restaurateur in Oakland got in trouble for comments around this dish. A tread lightly dish.

    • Jill
      May 18, 2018 6:44pm

      Ok, I’ll bite! What kind of trouble?

      • Rafael
        May 19, 2018 1:16am

        Google Oakland puttanesca. It’s a fairly recent story.

  • Livey
    May 18, 2018 7:45pm

    Oh David, surely you know by now there is no such thing as a “freebie”
    ;)

  • May 18, 2018 7:56pm

    I thought you could only get this in Rome. I’m definitely making it. All my favorite flavors. I finally found decent anchovies in Paris – Ortiz in a jar but no salt. The can you showed is 800grs! Vs my measly 55gr. Heaven.

    • May 19, 2018 8:23am
      David Lebovitz

      I got these terrific anchovies at La Tête dans les olives. I used to be able to find the wonderful anchovies from Colloure in Paris (they even sold them at Monoprix!) but they seemed to have stopped, and I couldn’t find them anywhere else.

      • Parisbreakfast
        May 21, 2018 4:51pm

        That was the best pasta I’ve ever had! So sweet like dessert. I will head over to Tete tomorrow. My dream is to go to Colloure for complete immersion..Thanks David!

  • Sandra Myers
    May 18, 2018 8:02pm

    First off, get yourself some free weights and do a few bicep curls and work on your wrists as well. That way you won’t have problems with your current pots and pans.
    Secondly, I don’t know if anyone ever told you, but pasta puttanesca was Dad’s favorite—especially on the spicier side. So thank you for making and sharing this recipe. I tried it at the same restaurant, Fiore, in Old Saybrook CT with him and found I really like it as well!
    I have to make this soon !!

  • Carolyn Kotler
    May 18, 2018 8:02pm

    You talk about using plum
    Tomatoes, then in recipe call for tomato purée. Which one should I use?

    • mj
      May 18, 2018 9:34pm

      the canned tomatoes is in fact the puree, after you’ve crushed them by hand / with a fork that is.

  • Chandler in Las Vegas
    May 18, 2018 8:37pm

    David, Great article on a classic dish. May I make a request? I am one of those Americans who understands the benefits of fermented fish sauce and the historical nature of garum. But cooking with the actual little beasties gives me pause. Would you please do an article devoted to the myriad varieties of anchovies for those of us hesitant? Do they have bones?

  • Catherine Noel
    May 18, 2018 9:11pm

    David
    I just love your posts even if I don’t
    Cook most of the recipes. I’m a
    Recipe junkie and read for pleasure
    And that way I don’t put on the pounds. LOL
    Keep up the good work. Just finished L’appart. Laughed so hard.

    • May 19, 2018 8:20am
      David Lebovitz

      Glad you liked the book, L’appart, so much! : )

  • Heidi
    May 18, 2018 9:35pm

    Ha! my mother’s son! I am my mother’s daughter, same, LOL, made me smile, my freezer is stuffed also. Thanks for your recipes, stories and sense of humor, I love them! I am going to make it to France one day, maybe I’ll see you at a street market gathering more cooking things that I don’t need but want….

  • Sandra Alexander
    May 19, 2018 12:58am

    A standby for me too! Thanks for the tip re chilli flakes, even easier to make the dish in future, no chopping a chilli (oh, such hard work). Though I do like a sprinkle of Parmesan……..

  • Katrina Hall
    May 19, 2018 1:44am

    I simply love your posts, David – I feel as if I live vicariously in Paris through you! And your recipes are fantastic – my go to. Thanks for all your hard work!

  • Domenica
    May 19, 2018 2:13am

    David this looks wonderful! Would you use some type of grated cheese to top it off or not?

    • May 19, 2018 8:25am
      David Lebovitz

      I don’t think it’s traditional, and it’s one of the pastas where I don’t miss grated cheese on top, but you could add some if you wish.

  • KarenTheCondimentQueen
    May 19, 2018 4:10am

    OH, my, YES! Growing up next to Mrs. Guglieamo, she made this once a week. The only thing she did differently was to add a teaspoon of brown sugar. It was DIVINE! Just imagine being a little girl, I always turned down her offer every Tuesday of Tomato Pie…Sigh. God rest Mrs. Guglieamo.

  • May 19, 2018 6:08am

    Thank you for this great recipe, using canned tomatoes makes sense, why didn’t I think of that!

  • Dan
    May 19, 2018 6:32am

    Husband away tonight on a business trip. Made this and washed it down with a lovely Gigondas. Perfect antidote for those lonesome Friday night blues. Thanks!

  • JuliaKateLucy
    May 19, 2018 9:08am

    This sounds wonderful. And that pan is so brilliant and shiny! Can the Hestan pan be put in the dishwasher? And can you use steel wool on it, if you burn something in it, which I often seem to do when I have a new pan.

    • May 19, 2018 9:42am
      David Lebovitz

      The booklet that came with the pan said it’s dishwasher safe, although the finish may dull over time. But they advise to only use non-abrasive sponges and fine powdered, or soft cleansers in their pans.

      • JuliaKateLucy
        May 20, 2018 3:16am

        Thanks for this info. I just noticed Williams-Sonoma carries this line here in SF. I now have plans to check these out in person.

  • May 19, 2018 7:18pm

    Could you please say more about canned v. fresh tomatoes? Specifically, why do canned tomatoes have a better taste for this dish. In general, are canned better than fresh in cooking?

    • May 20, 2018 4:34pm
      David Lebovitz

      Like canned coconut milk (which is usually made in the country where the coconuts are harvested, so they’ve very ripe and taste good) canned tomatoes are often canned close to harvest, and the tomatoes aren’t designed for long shipping or storage, so generally (but not always) they’re of good quality for making sauce from. Also they are usually plum tomatoes, which are more “pulpy” than other varieties of tomatoes and good for sauce. Because the spirit of the dish is to use things you have on hand, canned tomatoes contribute to that as well : )

      • Sarah Howery Hart
        May 24, 2018 9:35pm

        Thank you so much! It’s great to know all of this!

  • Gayle Kesinger
    May 19, 2018 8:37pm

    Made this for lunch and ate it while watching Megan and Harry leave the Church. Pasta was just delicious. Need more recipes for two. Thanks, David.

  • sharon mumby
    May 19, 2018 10:04pm

    My absolute favorite puttanesca sauce, thank you so much, I shall be making this for dinner tonight.
    Cant say I laughed at L’appart…every time the contractor said to you Pas de problem Daveed… I just knew that it would be a beeeg problem…! Having gone through a similar experience I empathized all the way through. My heart was with you and I was so happy almost everything worked out in the end. (Those windows…Mon Dieu)

    • Gayle Kesinger
      May 19, 2018 11:25pm

      I felt the same. But I don’t live in Paris so there must be a different standard for contractors. I think my blood pressure rose every time I heard pas de problem. Loved the recipes but David said they were not available with the audiobook.

  • Gavrielle
    May 20, 2018 1:21am

    Thanks for the tip about the garlic! I’ve taken to adding garlic later in the cooking process for most dishes, both to avoid this and to preserve the allicin, but I must try the cold oil trick when a cooked-garlic flavour is important.

    • Gayle Kesinger
      May 20, 2018 3:58pm

      Cold oil worked perfectly for me. Never did even think about starting it in cold oil.

  • John Maxim
    May 20, 2018 12:07pm

    Don’t fret, more traditionalists use tomato paste than lead on. I’m curious as to how you froze so many small scoops of that stuff.

    • May 21, 2018 12:28pm
      David Lebovitz

      I used a spring-loaded ice cream scoop to portion them out on a parchment-lined small baking sheet. (I used a scoop that was 2 tablespoons, so I know how much the portions are for later use.) Then I froze them like that. Once frozen, I transferred them to a zip-top freezer bag…for later!

  • Lynn D.
    May 22, 2018 2:26am

    I sometimes add a tablespoon or two of golden raisins to puttanesca. I like the contrast of the salty and the sweet. Sometimes if I have some frozen cod (I buy frozen bags of it at Costco) I’ll add that and some sweet peppers. Cauliflower is also good if you want to up the vegetables and have a one dish meal.

  • Michael
    May 22, 2018 2:47pm

    Hi David– fantastic recipe. I love pasta, but have eaten a bit too much of it lately and have been trying to get rid of extra poundage. So I made this sauce, and once it came together I tossed in spaghetti squash that I had roasted and drained (and rewarmed). It wasn’t pasta, but it WAS delicious and very satisfying and will now be a part of the regular rotation in our house!

  • Mare
    May 22, 2018 10:52pm

    This recipe sounds great. So appreciate your blog and photos and recipes. I am looking forward to trying this one. Not sure if I will use the anchovies or not. I would like to see an post on just anchovies also. If you’re looking for a topic…..I’m a little chicken to try them !

    • May 23, 2018 5:53am
      David Lebovitz

      The trick with anchovies (which isn’t really a trick, but a tip) is to use good-quality anchovies. Often the ones sold in little tins or jars in the supermarkets are fishy and don’t taste good. They’re okay for some cooking applications, but the better ones are a world away in flavor and quality. I buy mine at specialty shops and don’t mind paying a bit more because the better ones are worth the difference in price. If there isn’t a good shop in your community and you live in the U.S., Zingerman’s, Market Hall Foods, and Corti Brothers carry very good products, including anchovies.

  • Anne M Tokos
    May 24, 2018 4:45pm

    My favorite recipe from my Neapolitan Nonna! And as much as I love it with pasta it is also delicious on chick peas.

  • Jackie
    May 29, 2018 3:47am

    David, I know that you like Joanne Weir’s “From Tapas to Meze”, as do I. One of my favorite recipes from there is her Pepper Pasta with Tuna and Orange Puttanesca. I don’t make my own pasta for this, instead I use a really good imported spaghetti from Italy. I always have imported tuna packed in olive oil in my pantry, and an orange is easy enough to pick up when I want to make this, if I don’t already have one on the counter. Give this one a try. I think you will enjoy it.

  • Norm Potter
    May 29, 2018 2:21pm

    I add a whole bunch of grated parmesan as well as Italian parsley.

  • Gayle Kesinger
    June 2, 2018 9:04pm

    I fixed this recipe just as written and it was delicious. Made two meals. I plan to read all the comments for suggestions but really like this one as is. More recipes for one to two people, please.

  • Kim
    June 3, 2018 12:38am

    It’s winter here now David
    This is the pasta dish for winter
    Warm, fiery even and deliciosa
    We once had a budgy called Puty (pooty) a gorgeous large sunny yellow bird who loved her food she was large and what a character ! My daughter called her this after the dish Puttenesca !

  • Carmen
    June 12, 2018 12:41am

    By far, the BEST Pasta Puttanesca I have ever made and eaten! It is so rich and so flavorful, and the recipe is for two people so it is perfect for a solo weeknight in front of the TV. Thank you David! You are simply the best for sharing this.