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Easy Pasta Puttanesca Recipe

This Pasta Puttanesca recipe holds a special place in our hearts. It was the first meal that I (Bill) ever cooked for Leah when we were first dating. Obviously, it worked as we recently celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary.

Photo credit: Leah Ingram.

What is Pasta Puttanesca?

Pasta Puttanesca is a classic Italian quick sauce. Legend has it that certain working girls (putta in Italian) needed a quick meal between customers. This quick sauce was their solution. Thus the name, which literally means pasta in the manner of the, well, you know.

Use What you Have

Women in brothels did not necessarily have a full larder to draw from. They also had little time to cook.

So, out of necessity this sauce needed to be easy and flexible. Also, it required ingredients that needed little prep time. As a result, the recipe calls for whole tomatoes — why waste time chopping.

If you have whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, by all means use them. They are the gold standard for this dish. If all you have is a can of diced tomatoes or puree in your cupboard, go ahead and use them instead.

Happen to have some fresh tomatoes that you need to use up? Check out our article about how to peel tomatoes to prep them for sauce. It’s easier than you think.

mise en place for Pasta Puttanesca Recipe
Ingredients for easy pasta puttanesca. Photo credit: Leah Ingram.

Anchovies vs sardines

If you don’t love anchovies, don’t fret. As they cook up in the olive oil, they dissolve leaving just an essence that gives a salty body to the sauce. Leah doesn’t like anchovies and would never willingly add them to pizza or another recipe.

However, that first time I made this dish for her, I didn’t tell her about that ingredient and she never complained. Trust me — they do not overpower the flavor of this pasta puttanesca recipe.

Again, feel free to improvise here. Have sardines instead of anchovies? Go with them. However, you have to realize that they will likely not fully dissolve the way anchovies do. And if you want to impress the person you’ll be serving, maybe skip the fish ingredient altogether so as not to risk it.

Use what you like for this pasta puttanesca recipe

As with most of my recipes, I encourage you to add what you like and exclude what you don’t. The recipe included here has olives in it because, for many people, olives are central to the dish.

I don’t prefer olives, so I never add them when I am cooking for myself. If I have a pepper, half an onion or some scallions that are getting past their prime and need cooking, I’ll finely chop them and in they go.

Again, consider the recipe here to be your baseline and riff as you see fit. Recipes, like rules, are made to be broken. Or at least futzed with.

If you find you want a thicker sauce, add some tomato paste. I have recently begun to buy my paste in tubes, like toothpaste. I find it is more convenient for small amounts than having to open a can. This saves me from wondering what to do with the rest of the can of tomato paste if I only want a spoonful for a recipe.

Finally, pasta puttanesca is meant to be served with spaghetti-like macaroni. So you can try your hand at homemade spaghetti noodles, if you’re so inclined.

However, I’ve found that linguini — with its flatter, slightly thicker noodles — does a better job of holding onto the ingredients with each bite.

Here’s another spaghetti dish that’s quick and easy like my puttanesca recipe — aglio olio e peperoncino.

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Pasta Puttanesca Recipe in pan

Pasta alla Puttanesca

This classic quick pasta dish is a great weeknight treat.
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Course Main Course
Cuisine Italian
Servings 4 People


  • 1 lb spaghetti, linguine or similar long thin pasta.
  • 1 tin anchovies.
  • 4 tbsp olive oil.
  • 28 ounces tomatoes, whole peeled is traditional. I prefer to work with diced or crushed.
  • 4-6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed or minced, depending on your preference.
  • 3 tbsp capers, drained.
  • 4-5 leaves fresh basil, substitute 1 tbsp dried if need be.
  • 1 tsp oregano and/or parsley.
  • ¼ cup pitted and quartered olives, black or kalamata.
  • 1 tsp salt, to taste.
  • ½ tsp red pepper flakes, to taste.
  • ½ tsp black pepper, to taste.


  • Begin to boil water for the pasta.
  • In a deep skillet, heat olive oil. Once it is shimmering add anchovies and sautee until they are dissolved.
  • Add the capers and garlic and sautee until slightly the garlic browned.
  • Add tomatoes, basil, oregano/parsley, and olives. Simmer on low.
  • Add pasta to boiling water. Cook until limp, but very al dente.
  • Remove al dente pasta from water and transfer it to the sauce pan for finishing. Preserve 1/4 cup of pasta water.
  • Add pasta water to sauce pan if the sauce looks too thick or there is not enough liquid to finish the pasta. If the sauce is too thin, add a tsp of tomato paste.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.
  • Stir until the pasta is finished.
  • Serve right from pan.


Please note that nutrient values, if included with the recipe, are estimates only. Variations can occur due to product availability/substitution and manner of food preparation. Nutrition may vary based on methods of origin, preparation, freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

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