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Master the art of classic Italian puttanesca pasta sauce at home! This recipe makes an amazing thick, rich tomato sauce from whole canned tomatoes in about 25 minutes. Made in a skillet on the stovetop with capers, anchovies, olives and garlic galore, you’ll be craving this red sauce for days. It’s an essential sauce for spaghetti alla puttanesca, but it goes with just about any pasta you toss it with.
Have you tried homemade puttanesca sauce? You’ve come to the right place! This easy Italian red pasta sauce recipe is brimming with bold flavor — it’s briny, spicy, piquant, and tasty as all get-out.
My ancestors on both sides were Southern Italian immigrants, so sometimes I think that red sauce runs through my veins. I learned as a kid that classic Italian pasta recipes like spicy arrabbiata sauce, meat ragu and everyday marinara are the glue that can hold a family together.
Puttanesca is a gutsy version of a basic tomato sauce, punched up times-ten with Mediterranean ingredients like anchovy, capers, olives, red chili and lots of garlic.
It’s an essential sauce for spaghetti alla puttanesca, but it goes with just about any pasta you toss it with. It’s also delicious on spiralized zucchini or other veggie noodle.
Ingredients you need to make puttanesca sauce
The ingredients that go into puttanesca sauce pack a punch, and come straight from pantry staples — they are the key to making an incredibly tasty meal on the fly.
- Canned tomatoes: For a rich, thick sauce that cooks quickly, use high-quality whole peeled tomatoes, such as San Marzano-style tomatoes (they don’t necessarily have to be grown in Italy). Drain off the excess water in a strainer, then crush them with your hands or use a potato masher to produce a chunky texture.
- Anchovies: Because puttanesca is typically a pasta sauce with anchovies, these are a must. Anchovy fillets melt into the sauce and literally add that special little something. Anchovies packed in olive oil are delicious and convenient. I don’t recommend using anchovy paste as it can have a stale, off taste.
- Capers: Capers in pasta add a pop of briny flavor. Look for capers packed in salt or in brine. Rinse them well and drain before add them to the sauce. If you have capers that are much larger than a peppercorn, give them a rough chop.
- Olives: Black olives such as kalamata olives or gaeta are traditional in puttanesca. But they can taste pretty strong to my palate. That’s why I prefer plump green olives such as Castelvetrano. They are sweet, meaty and so delicious in pasta sauce. Use whichever olives you like!
- Crushed red pepper: Adjust the amount of red pepper flakes to your taste, up to about a teaspoon. Authentic puttanesca sauce definitely has a spicy kick.
- Garlic: Grated garlic quickly infuses this sauce with flavor. Use a garlic press or rasp-style grater to get 2 tablespoons of garlic, which is about 4 garlic cloves, depending on their size.
- Tomato paste: A small amount of tomato paste help to thicken and bind the sauce.
- Extra virgin olive oil: Use your best everyday oil.
- Parsley: Tender green parsley always adds a spark of freshness. You can also use fresh basil as a garnish if you have it.
Fun facts about puttanesca sauce:
WHAT IT MEANS: The word Puttanesca means “prostitute-style” from the Italian word “puttana.”
ORIGIN: The sauce allegedly arose from red-light areas in Rome around World War II when hungry soldiers were — ahem — enjoying the night life.
HOW IT TASTES: Puttanesca sauce is a robustly flavored sauce that’s piquant, spicy and full of umami.
How to cook puttanesca sauce, step by step
- While the sauce simmers, bring a large pot of water to a boil to cook your pasta — learn how to cook pasta at home.
The sauce should be thickened and ready to enjoy in about 15 minutes.
What to serve with puttanesca sauce
Duh, pasta! But that’s not all. This delectable sauce can be used in many other ways:
- As a pizza topping
- With baked mozzarella chicken
- To sauce old-school meatballs
- With garlicky sautéed shrimp or simple grilled tuna steaks
- Over creamy polenta
Classic Puttanesca Sauce, Step by Step
- 1 28-ounce can (795 g) whole tomatoes
- ¼ cup (60 ml) extra virgin olive oil
- 3-4 oil-packed anchovies, chopped
- 2 tablespoons (30 g) capers, rinsed and drained
- ½-1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons (30 g) pressed or grated garlic, 4-5 cloves
- 1 tablespoons (15 g) tomato paste
- ⅓ cup green or black olives (such as Castelvetrano or Gaeta), pitted and halved
- Kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or basil
- Empty the can of tomatoes into a mesh colander set over a bowl — this will drain off excess water. Discard the water and add the tomatoes to the bowl. Crush them with your hands or use a potato masher or wooden spoon. Set the bowl aside.
- Add the olive oil, anchovies, red pepper and capers to a 10-12-inch saute pan or skillet and place over medium-high heat. Cook until the anchovies break down easily with a spoon and the capers begin to sizzle, about 2 minutes.
- Stir in the garlic and tomato paste. Cook another 30 seconds to one minute, just until the garlic is aromatic. Add the reserved drained tomatoes, olives and ½ teaspoon kosher salt.
- Bring the sauce to a simmer. Cook 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the sauce has thickened. Add the parsley and serve over hot cooked pasta.
Karen’s Notes and Tips
- To store the sauce, pack into jars or other airtight container and refrigerate up to a week or freeze one month.
- The recipe makes enough sauce for 12 ounces dried pasta. Try using classic long pasta such as spaghetti and linguine or short pasta like fusilli, penne or rigatoni. You can even use it on zucchini zoodles!