How to Make Pasta Puttanesca

You’re hosting an informal dinner party and don’t have a whole lot of cooking experience. Now is not the time to impress your friends by making Duck Pâté en Croûte. Consider cooking something simple. That way you’re not wasting time visiting three different grocery stores for that hard-to-find ingredient. Nor do you want to spend four hours working up a sweat and a mound of dishes in the kitchen. An easy menu ensures you aren’t exhausted, stressed out and worrying if you’ve somehow poisoned your guests.

You can’t go wrong with pasta puttanesca. This means “whore’s sauce” in Italian and was allegedly popularized in the 1950s. This is not a dish your folks ordered at The Olive Garden. This is real Italian food. It’s got all kinds of fun flavors in big, briny, rustic doses that can make a Saturday night with friends one to remember. Best of all, it’s easy to make. By the time people ring the doorbell, a candle or two is already lit and you’re relatively relaxed, putting on your favorite mood music and ready for company.

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

The extra-added bonus is the lively discussion that will be sparked as soon as someone asks what “puttanesca” means.

This recipe will serve four people and takes about 30 minutes to make.

What You Need:

  1. Two tablespoons of olive oil
  2. Six cloves of garlic
  3. Three anchovy fillets
  4. Red pepper flakes
  5. Teaspoon of oregano
  6. 28-oz can of whole tomatoes
  7. 20 kalamata olives cut in half
  8. ¼ cup of capers
  9. A half-cup of roughly chopped Italian parsley or basil (or a combo of both)
  10. One pound of spaghetti
  11. Parmesan cheese

Cooking Notes:

Tomato / Tomahto

These days at grocery stores it’s easy to find cans of tomatoes that come from Italy. But really you can’t go wrong with any kind of canned tomatoes.

Consider leveling-up any canned tomatoes by cooking them ahead of time. This sauce is one of the most popular by the celebrated Italian cook Marcella Hazan from her book “Basics of Italian Cooking”. It’s also very good on its own.

  1. Open the 28-oz can of tomatoes and put into a medium saucepan over a medium-high heat
  2. Add five tablespoons of butter
  3. Add half of an onion
  4. Sprinkle with a teaspoon of oregano, a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper
  5. As the tomatoes, cook, gently break them down using a spoon
  6. Cook for 45 minutes and set aside

These steps are optional but if you have a little extra time on your hands, you’ll find that the flavors coalesce into a velvety-smooth goodness.

Get Choppin’

Garlic is the aromatic centerpiece of this recipe. You need not add all six. Maybe three cloves is more your speed. Plus, you may want to cut down on the amount should you be on a hot date. Regardless, a healthy dose of garlic every now and then is harmful to only vampires.

Just be careful not to cut yourself in the process. Here are some tips for preparing garlic.

  1. Take the garlic and use the biggest kitchen knife you have to smash it. Make sure you’re pressing down on the dull edge of the blade. Remove the peel
  2. Curl your fingers that are holding the garlic back into the palm of your hand
  3. Choke up on the knife handle and gently rock the blade back and forth over the garlic
  4. As you chop, slowly push the garlic out with your thumb keeping the hand curled

Ideally, it’d be great to have razor thin slices of garlic a la “Good Fellas” but that’s time consuming and tedious. You can certainly do one a second pass to chop the garlic into finer pieces. And if it’s revealed the garlic is from a jar or you used a press, no one is going to judge you harshly. (Unless you invited your Italian nonna.)

Anchovy, Please

“Pizza with Anchovies” has forever ruined anchovies for many people even though those same people have never actually tried them. It’s too bad, because they are a flavor powerhouse. You wouldn’t want to necessarily eat one from a jar. The saltiness is intense. Yet it’s that saltiness and, yes, slight fishiness, that make it the x-factor of this dish.

If you still have reservations, you can skip the anchovy… but if you’ve got an adventurous palette you’ll be rewarded for it.

Why Not Take Olive Me

Kalamata olives work best for this dish. Be sure to buy pitted olives. Yes, it’s tedious chopping them in half but sometimes you’ll find a spare olive in the bunch that hasn’t been pitted. For this very reason, you just might be saving a friend’s molar.

Pass the Pasghetti

Spaghetti is the pasta you’ll want to use. A thin noodle seems to work better with chunkier ingredients. However, don’t feel like you’ve failed at life if you serve this over shells. Relax, it’s just an informal dinner party.

Cooking Instructions:

Pour olive oil into a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat.

When the oil begins to bubble, add the garlic and stir. Reduce heat to medium, keeping an eye on the pan to make sure the garlic doesn’t burn.

Add a generous pinch of red pepper flakes, oregano and anchovy and stir. The anchovy will break up and dissolve.

Once the garlic has yellowed and softened (possibly after a minute or two), add the tomatoes, a dash of salt and pepper and stir.

If using whole tomatoes, gently break them down using a spoon or the back of a fork (watch the splatter!). Turn up heat to a simmer.

Meanwhile, fill a large pot with water, turn heat to high.

After the tomato mixture has cooked for 30 minutes, add olives and capers and stir until the water boils. Add a fistful of salt, spaghetti, stir, reduce heat to medium and cook for ten minutes or until al dente.

Taste the puttanesca and add salt and pepper as needed.

Reserve ¼ cup of pasta water. Drain pasta and add to the sauce. Mix in the pasta water and stir.

Add the parsley or basil (or both!). Give it one last mix.

Buon appetito

Serve in a large serving bowl with a heaping side of parmesan cheese (people are often disappointed if the cheese is overlooked, FYI).

The dish pairs well with a large, simple salad and some crusty bread. Ask your friends to bring an Italian red and see which one you think matches best with the meal.

Unless things go completely awry and you order pizza (not a total disaster, for what it’s worth), this is a recipe you can make many times until it becomes a staple. However, with this combination of flavors, it’s hard to screw it up. Who knows? Maybe you’ll become a convert to the cult of the anchovy.

Rangy, mangy and ready to lie down for a nap. Comedyman, Musicianman, Candyman