Pasta alla Puttanesca

I hope you don’t consider it uncouth for me to talk about whores at such an early hour, especially on a Monday, but it’s impossible to write about Pasta Puttanesca without sounding like a cast member of The Sopranos. (If that’s the case, I should pronounce the word: “whoo-ore.”) You see, Pasta alla Puttanesca translates in Italian to: “Pasta the way a whore would make it.” The reasons are often disputed: some say it’s because this is the pasta whores would make in Italy to lure in potential customers, others say it’s because the strong smell–anchovies, garlic–made the pasta itself “smell like a whore.” Either way, this is a delicious pasta and extremely easy to make: in fact, last night, it was Easter and all the grocery stores were closed. So I ran to the corner bodega and bought one box of ziti, one can of tomato puree, and used the garlic and anchovies and capers I had on hand to whip up a potful and it was a big hit: the Julia Roberts of whore pastas.

Here’s the thing: I normally use whole peeled tomatoes in my pasta sauces, I crush them by hand and the resulting sauce is pretty chunky. But all the bodega had was tomato puree, so I didn’t have much of a choice, and you know what? I found the resulting sauce far more satiny and smooth. So that’s something to keep in mind when you choose between whole tomatoes and tomato puree.

And now for the recipe; please avert your children’s eyes, they’re too young to see such things.

Pasta alla Puttanesca

Serves 4 or 3 very hungry people


1 lb of ziti or penne

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

8 cloves of garlic, sliced very thinly (it’s a ton of garlic, but that’s why you’ll smell like a whore!)

5 or 6 anchovy filets, cut into bits (if you use anchovies from a jar, this is the right amount; if, however, you use salted anchovies–which are far better, but much rarer–use less and rinse them well)

A pinch of red pepper flakes

1 Tbs tomato paste

3 Tbs capers, well drained

1 35-oz can pureed or whole tomatoes (that you crush yourself)


1. Bring a big, big pot of water to a boil;

2. When the water reaches a boil, pour the olive oil into a big fat skillet with a lid (this is where all the pasta will end up, so make sure there’s enough room); drop the slivered garlic and the anchovies into the cold oil and bring the heat up to medium/high. When it starts sizzling stir it all around.

3. Be careful here, because the garlic can burn fast; push the garlic and anchovy mix to one half of the skillet, and in the other half shake in the red pepper flakes to taste (if you like it spicy, use a lot; if you like it mild, use a little) and the 1 Tbs of tomato paste. Stir the tomato paste around in its spot til it turns orange and then stir everything in the skillet all together. It should smell pretty fab. Again, make sure nothing’s burning (if anything looks like it’s getting past dark brown, dump the tomatoes in STAT!) but before you do add the tomatoes, drop in those capers. They’ll sizzle and pop; stir it all around and then add the tomatoes.

4. Bring the tomatoes to a boil, add a dash of salt (but not too much ’cause those anchovies are salty), then put the lid on the skillet and lower the heat to low, low, low so it simmers. (Lift the lid and stir it all around every 3 minutes or so; make sure it’s not bubbling too rapidly.)

5. Wait 5 minutes and then salt the boiling water; add your pasta and stir it around well so it doesn’t stick together.

6. 5 minutes later (so the sauce’s been cooking 10 minutes, and the pasta only 5) lift the lid off the skillet and stir that sauce all around. Taste it. Is it delicious? Season it now. Now let it cook with the lid off so it thickens for the remaining time it takes for the pasta to cook.

7. Taste the pasta as it gets close to being done: you want it to be al dente. When it is (meaning toothsome and not at all mushy) drain the pasta (I use a cooking spider) and drop all the pasta into the sauce. Turn up the heat and turn it round and round until the pasta is well coated and there aren’t pools of sauce at the bottom of the skillet (it should be pretty dry once the pasta’s coated.)

8. That’s it! Serve it up with lots of Parmesan cheese and watch the Johns line up outside your door ready for some action. Tell them I’m your pimp and give me 30%. Enjoy!

19 thoughts on “Pasta alla Puttanesca”

  1. Puttanesca rocks! I heard it is called “whore’s pasta” because it is made of items (anchovies, olives, capers, etc.) which can be easily stored for long periods of time – the idea being that the ladies of the night wouldn’t get out much to do shopping for fresh stuff.

  2. I will have to try my sauce with puree next. I normally just go for the whole tomatoes too.

    I instantly thought of Tommy Boy too:

    Frank Rittenhauer: If this factory goes under, the whole town goes under.

    Boardroom Woman: That’s when the whores come in.

    Paul: Excuse me, what was that?

    Boardroom Woman: Men laying their trick-money down. Twenty dollars to pay the rent? Maybe not. Maybe instead I’ll spend it on the whore.

  3. I was once told that this pasta got its name because when the whores got off work in the early morning, the restaurateurs would make them pasta with whatever they had left: capers, olives, tomatoes, etc. Even the spaghetti, which was the easiest pasta to have on hand because it was the standby shape, was used in the original dish.

    I guess we’ll never know the real source!

  4. i love making pasta puttanesca another rustic dish ain’t it. I used whole canned tomatoes myself, crush em up and add em to the pan after frying up the anchovies, garlic, olives and capers, chili flakes. Let the tomatoes simmer for a little while and voila instant perfection!

  5. You might want to fix the typo or braino in step 6’s parenthetical: “so the pasta’s been cooking 10 minutes, and the pasta only 5.”

  6. Maybe it got the name because of the things people are willing to do to get their hands on some. I’m putting capers on my shopping list right now.

  7. I’ve heard of Pasta Puttenesca before, but didn’t know what’s in it. The combo of tons of garlic, anchovies, and capers sounds so perfect… I don’t think I’d mind smelling like an Italian whore if I got to eat this! ;)

    I love everyone’s ideas for where this dish gets its name!

  8. I’ve been using the petite dice tomatoes lately — kind of in between sauce and whole crushed – I like the light texture. Adding a mixture of green and black olives to the Puttanesca is delicious too.

  9. Salpy Kabaklian

    I posit another reason: in the version I made by Mario Batali, I noticed that there were a lot of breaks. There was a period of activity, followed by a period of leaving the food alone, and I think in the recipe he noted that the pasta only got better as it sat. So I argue that this pasta’s appeal is that it could be thrown together between customers, and didn’t suffer if neglected for long periods of time.

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