Puttanesca sauce (spaghetti alla puttanesca) is an easy Italian sauce that comes together in a snap, is make-ahead friendly, freezer friendly and jammed-packed with flavor and veggies.
It has a rich tomato base with hints of pepper and briny capers and olives. Crushed red pepper gives a sweet heat, a well-balanced sauce with layers of sophisticated flavor ready in just 15 minutes. One of the best quick sauces for easy weeknight meals.
Puttanesca pasta is considered a classic Italian pasta sauce, along with many other tomato-based sauces. Of courses there are also white sauces (alfredo). If you are short on time another night check out how to make jarred alfredo sauce better.
What is Puttanesca Sauce?
The base ingredients for Puttanesca are tomato, anchovies, capers and olives, but the exact amounts vary from recipe to recipe and there are unlimited ways to make this sauce your own.
In fact, while the exact origins are debated (but generally agreed upon developed in Naples, Italy in the 20th century), this simple pasta sauce recipe is known for being able to use up random things in the fridge. And staples in any Italian kitchen include these base ingredients.
The literal translation is Italian and Latin and comes to (I’m just the messenger!) in the style of the wh0re.” In Italian “wh0re” and in latin “stinking”. Most folks refer to it as a cheap, but fragrant and colorful sauce.
Simple pantry staples come together to make an excellent bold tomato sauce.
- Extra virgin olive oil- Use a good quality olive oil in this one, the underlying flavors will help promote the olives.
- Shallot– I like the milder flavors of a shallot, but any type of onion can be used.
- Fresh Garlic- Measure the garlic with your heart, but know that the potency will greatly depend on how many membranes are ruptured while chopping. Slicing garlic provides flavor without being overpowering and also is slightly less time consuming. For more garlicky taste, mince, press or even grate.
- Anchovy paste– Before you turn your nose up, know that anchovies offer a spicy and peppery base that is not fishy at all. Most recipes call for whole anchovy fillets, but I prefer using the paste. This can be omitted if you can’t get past its reputation.
- Crushed red pepper flakes – Adds the spice that puttanesca is so well-known for.
- Tomato paste- Concentrated tomato flavor helps the sauce thicken faster than using tomato juice and waiting for it to reduce.
- Whole Italian tomatoes with juices– I love how crushing tomatoes with my hands gives this a rustic and authentic texture. Crushed tomatoes in a can are just a coarser tomato sauce. In a pinch, use diced canned tomatoes. It’s the closest you’ll get to old school roasting your own fresh tomatoes. San marzano tomatoes are the most popular.
- Capers– Many sauces go light on the capers and heavy on the olives, mine is the opposite, but to each their own. Measure based on your personal preference.
- Kalamata Olives– These Greek olives are large, dark brown olives with a smooth, meaty texture and brined in vinegar and olive oil. They are commonly table olives used for munching, but in this case offer a burst of flavors. Black olives or green olives can be used. And if you love olives, double, even triple the amount and use all three!
- Sugar– Just a touch of sugar helps to bind and balance the width breadth of flavors.
- Coarse kosher salt– Brings out the natural tastes and balances the acidity. If using fine sea salt, cut the amount in half.
- Ground black pepper– Freshly ground is best. White pepper can also be swapped.
- Fresh basil leaves– These are added last to retain the freshness. They can be chopped, but I chiffonade them to vary the shapes. Dried basil can be used, but then add it along with the garlic and onion in the first step to soften and give the oils time to emerge.
- Pasta of Choice– Cooked to al dente. Can also be served over rice, risotto or roasted cauliflower. Cook it in a large pot of water that is heavily salted, like the sea, for the most authentic dish. some folks like to reserve some of the pasta water, but I find I need to reduce the sauce, not thin it out. You can save some for revamping leftovers if you wish.
What Is Chiffonade?
It’s fancy, huh? But not really, just a French word that means to cut into ribbons or long strands. Basil leaves are especially good for this technique because they are large and you can easily roll them and then cut.
- Stack the leaves on top of each other, about 4-5 per stack.
- Tightly roll them up.
- Use a sharp knife to slice them short ways into ribbons.
How to Make Puttanesca Sauce
- Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
- Add the shallot, sauteing until slightly soft, then the garlic, anchovy paste and crushed red pepper until they are fragrant.
- Stir in the tomato paste and juices from the can of tomatoes. Using clean hands, hand squeeze each tomato into the sauce, breaking apart with your hands. You can also slice the tomatoes or use diced tomatoes in a can. Using your hands is the most authentic way to bring Italy to your kitchen.
- Stir in the capers, olives, sugar, salt and pepper. Cook for another 5 minutes or until sauce has thickened and the flavors marry.
- Right before serving, stir in the basil and serve with your favorite pasta.
- Top with more crushed red pepper flakes or a sprinkle of freshly grated parmesan cheese or romano cheese.
This is a great vegetarian pasta recipe, but if you are craving protein, chicken puttanesca and shrimp puttanesca are the most popular. This doesn’t mean you can top it with sliced steak, lump crab meat, scallops or calamari.
It isn’t meant to be a super saucy dish- just a dollop on top. If you crave more sauce, double the recipe.
What Pasta to Use
Did you know there are thousands of types of pastas and each one was developed for a very specific use. While technically speaking, you can serve this with any pasta you prefer, some are better suited to chunky, thick, and meaty sauces. These include:
- Spaghetti- the most traditional and common.
- Linguine- a wider noodle.
- Bucatini– Hollow spaghetti noodles, a little toothier. Common in carbonara.
- Fettuccine– Another wide, flat long strand.
- Angel Hair or Capellini– Long, thin pasta. Often though for more delicate sauces, I do like it with this one.
Like I mentioned in the intro, this pasta puttanesca recipe is great for cleaning out the vegetable crisper. Here are a few more favorites.
- Eggplant chunks
- Bell peppers
- Roasted red peppers
- Squash chunks
- Spicy chili peppers
- Artichoke hearts
Storage & Freezing
This sauce is great for making in larger batches and making ahead.
Make Ahead & leftovers– Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week. Reheat in a skillet with a small amount of olive oil or chicken broth to revive it or in the microwave and then toss with your favorite hot pasta.
Freezing– Store in an airtight container or freezer bag, removing as much air as possible to combat freezer burn. Can be kept frozen for up to 6 months. Thaw in the fridge overnight or the defrost function on the microwave or in a saucepan over low heat.
More Pasta Sauces
Easy Puttanesca Sauce Recipe
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 shallot chopped
- 3 fresh garlic cloves thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons anchovy paste optional
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 35 ounces whole Italian tomatoes with juices
- 1/4 cup capers drained
- 1 tablespoon kalamata olives coarsely chopped
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon coarse Kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves chiffonade cut
- Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
- Add the shallot, sauteing for 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic, anchovy paste and crushed red pepper, sauteing for 2 more minutes or until it is fragrant.
- Stir in the tomato paste and juices from the can of tomatoes. Using clean hands, hand squeeze each tomato into the sauce, breaking apart with your hands. Allow the sauce to come to a simmer, stirring occasionally.
- Stir in the capers, olives, sugar, salt and pepper. Cook for another 5 minutes or until sauce has thickened.
- Right before serving, stir in the basil. Serve over your favorite pasta.
- If you’ve tried this recipe, come back and let us know how it was in the comments or star ratings.