Pasta Puttanesca

In high school, I made pasta puttanesca for the first time. My teacher gave us a take-home assignment to cook an authentic Italian dish, and my team drew the puttanesca. All I really remember about the assignment was the name “Pasta Puttanesca” and just how funny it was, and the horrendous idea that we would have to eat capers (yuck!) and olives (double yuck!) and anchovies (too disgusting even to think about). I actually thought it turned out pretty good, though I imagine if I had to eat a meal prepared by three high school kids with no cooking experience, you might hear a few double yucks from me now.


I haven’t made pasta puttanesca since high school, but every time I’ve thought about it since then I’ve laughed — “Whore’s Pasta!” — gufaww! I’m laughing now. I guess jokes from your childhood have a way of making you smile. I find the name so funny that it was actually hard to cook it. I made joke after joke to Jim, who didn’t find them as funny as I did, and I even called a bunch of people to tell them I was making pasta puttanesca, hardy har har. I’m obviously regressing in leaps and bounds.


But if reverting to a fourteen-year-old is the price for pasta puttanesca, I’ll pay it. Capers, olives, and anchovies all seem so delicious now; briny, oily, fishy — the stuff of my dreams! I’m rather ashamed of my 14-year-old self, sticking out my tongue at those lovely ingredients. And the name, whore’s pasta or street-walker’s pasta, or whatever it actually translates to in Italian, only adds to the greatness of the dish, adding a little sex to the tomatoes and chilies and big fat shrimp.


To make a pasta puttanesca special, parsley is key. Use lots and lots of it. It’ll be the foil to the spice, the fish flavor, and the sweet tomatoes. Parsley brings it all together.


I’ve heard that people don’t traditionally put cheese on their puttanesca, so we tried it without first. But a good block of parmigianno was in my fridge, and a load of pasta on my plate, and the combination proved too hard to resist. And I don’t really know why you wouldn’t want cheese in there; it was delicious melding with the spices, coating the shrimp. A good glug of olive oil on top won’t hurt, either.

big bowl o' pasta

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

adapted from Patricia Wells’ Trattoria cookbook (a lovely cookbook, indeed)

serves 6

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 flat anchovy fillets cured in olive oil, minced
3 plump fresh garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
sea salt
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes in juice
15 salt-cured black olives, such as Italian Gaeta or French Nyons, pitted and halved
2 tablespoons capers, drained and rinsed
1 pound dried Italian imported spaghetti
1 cup flat leaf Italian parsley, coarsely chopped.
1/2 to 1 pound big, fat shrimp, peeled and deveined

In an unheated skillet large enough to hold the pasta later on, combine the oil, anchovies, garlic, crushed red peppers, and a pinch of salt, stirring to coat with the oil. Cook over moderate heat just until the garlic turns golden but does not brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour out a little of the juice from the can of tomatoes, maybe about half, then add the tomatoes with reserved juice into the pan, breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Add the olives and capers. Stir to blend, and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce begins to thicken, about 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

Meanwhile, in a large pot bring 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add 3 tablespoons of salt and the spaghetti, stirring to prevent the pasta from sticking. Cook until tender but firm to the bite. Drain.

Add the drained pasta to skillet with the sauce. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper and add the shrimp to the pasta and sauce. Toss, then tuck the shrimp into the pasta and let it cook for 2-3 minutes, or until the shrimp is mostly done. Turn off the heat and let the sauce absorb into the pasta for another minute or so.  Add the parsley and toss. Serve immediately, passing parmesan cheese and olive oil at the table.


18 thoughts on “Pasta Puttanesca”

  1. Next to Jesus and just below soccer and “la mamma”, Italians are freakishly devout when it comes to never ever ever putting cheese on their seafood. Don’t ask me why. In some cases, yes it makes sense. For example, tagliatelle alla camicia nera — homemade threads of long pasta swimming in a succulent squid ink sauce should never be topped with cheese, that’s just plain disrespect. But, a creamy seafood risotto is just begging for some salty parmigiano if you ask me. Funny thing is, you’ll get more than a raised eyebrow if you ask for cheese with your seafood dish in a restaurant in Italy (and don’t expect the cheese to show up). Yet I have seen my Venetian cousins coat their seafood risotto with a thick layer of parmigiano within the confines of their own home. Italians are truly a funny bunch…

    1. Funny bunch, indeed. 😉 I also top a seafood risotto with cheese, but agree with you on leaving it out in the case of squid ink! I’m a believer that you do whatever you think tastes good.

      Thanks for stopping by again. I really enjoy your comments.

  2. You know how the dish got its name, right? Puttanesca is made from ingredients that are in the pantry. When Missy the Whore finishes her shift it is somewhere before dawn, and no restaurants are open. She is tired, so she comes home to make something before finally tossing herself into bed (solo this time). What she makes is a simple pasta with ingredients she has in cans or jars: Tomato passata, capers, anchovies, maybe a little garlic. The parsley she plucks from her window boxes…

  3. This is one of my favourite pastas and we eat it often. Without fail though, we argue about the cheese. D thinks it’s essential to the dish; I think it spoils it. Each to their own, I guess!

  4. The first time I made pasta puttanesca, I was of similar age, but mine was a veganized version (no anchovies, shrimp or pasta with eggs in it for me back then). I fell in love at first bite because it provided the salty taste that my diet seemed to be missing.

    As a meat eater now, I like the non-vegan version even better.

    Great photos Robin!

  5. @justapinchofsalt: My friend Daniela, who comes from Genoa, is similarly steadfast about the Italian belief that seafood and cheese should never interact in the same dish.

    Robin: My friend Peter, who lives in the Belmont section of the Bronx (Arthur Ave., the Italian-American section) and went to school in Bologna, taught me all I know about Italian food and wine. He insists that Redpack tomatoes are the only brand that he uses in his Puttanesca.
    Go figure.

    1. I think there’s some kind of Redpack V. San Marzano feud out there. I’m partial to San Marzano, but I’ve been toying with trying Redpack more often since it’s usually cheaper and easier to find…

      1. While I use San Marzanos for my pizza sauce and my pasta sauce, I remain unconvinced that many manufacturers really use DOCG San Marzanos in their cans. In fact, many simply write “San Marzano style” tomatoes or use a small percentage of San Marzanos mixed with domestic or Mexican tomatoes and call their product “San Marzano” tomatoes. In any case, with puttanesca, the anchovies, capers, olives, garlic (and, as you point out, the parsley) fortify the sauce and somewhat obscure subtleties in its taste.

        1. I usually buy the real deal, but I agree there’s really no need to do so in this dish — pure snobbery on my part. I like to take a bite out of any canned tomato I use, and I’ve tried and liked Redpack before, maybe just a little less than San Marzano. I did have San Marzanos with added basil in the can once, and that was dis-gusting!

  6. I’ve been known to use this sauce when I make eggplant parmesan. I love the addition of shrimp though. And I put cheese on most of my seafood pastas. I would leave it off of squid ink though.

    1. Yes, freshly cured, from a local fish shop ( and so good all by themselves. It’s hard to go back to canned after these guys.

  7. oh, this looks delicious! of course i’m also sad that America no longer cans anchovies 😦 i’m concerned about how much the price might increase now that they all have to be imported.

  8. I read this the other day and the computer died while I was trying to leave a comment, so here we go again. I like everything about this post, the recipe (it is one of my favourites), the twist with the fat shrimp, the meaty pictures, the writing, it makes me want to cook now and that is the sign of a great inspiring post. Great stuff.

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