"Puttanesca" literally translates to "in the style of prostitutes," supposedly because the pungent aromas of garlic, anchovies, capers, and olives tossed with pasta were how Neapolitan prostitutes would lead customers to their doors. This is one of those stories that seem, in the words of Douglas Adams, apocryphal or at least wildly inaccurate.
That said, it's a fitting title. As in many Southern Italian dishes, the extra-virgin olive oil is applied as liberally as the perfume on a puttana, and, like its namesake, it's something you'll want to make sure your partner is completely on board with before you partake of it, because there's no hiding the evidence.
Before you even begin making the sauce, the first step in spaghetti puttanesca is to get the spaghetti in a pot of boiling water. I simply use a 12-inch skillet or a sauté pan; there's no need to waste energy, time, and water bringing a huge pot to a boil (especially in water-strapped California). In fact, the dish comes out even better with the low-water method of pasta cooking, as it increases the concentration of starch in the water, which will help the sauce thicken and cling to the noodles later on.
Once the spaghetti is on, the puttanesca sauce starts its life in a very similar way to pasta with aglio e olio (garlic and olive oil): flavoring plenty of good extra-virgin olive oil by slowly sizzling garlic and chili flakes in it. Puttanesca ups the pungency factor a few notches by adding anchovies to that mix. You can either thinly slice or finely chop the garlic, depending on your mood—honestly, I use both ways equally often—but the anchovies should be chopped quite finely so that they dissolve into the oil as they cook.
Normally, I'm all for using the garlic press, the Microplane, or the grater to mince garlic rapidly for dishes in which it will be only briefly cooked with other ingredients. But for a dish like this, for which you want to really deeply flavor the oil from the get-go, garlic that is pressed or grated ends up burning well before it can infuse the oil. (See our testing on minced garlic here.)
In our guide on How to Buy and Prepare Anchovies, we mentioned that in some applications—particularly those in which anchovy fillets will be served mostly intact, like a Niçoise salad—whole anchovies packed in salt are preferable. But for applications in which the anchovies are going to be dissolved, oil-packed fillets will do just fine. That's what I use here.
Chopping the capers and olives is probably the most difficult part of the prep for this dish, and I admit it can be a little tedious the first few times you try—those things just don't like to sit still! But follow our knife skills guide to chopping capers and olives, and you should have no issues. Once the garlic and anchovies have had a bit of time to get to know each other and the garlic starts to take on a slight tan, in go the olives and capers.
When we were kids, my dad used to cook Chinese food for us on occasion. He'd always make a dish he called "Pico's Bland Chicken"—velveted chicken breast, stir-fried with carrots and seasoned only with salt, if I remember right—for my little sister, who hated anything that had strong flavors. Little Pico would not have liked puttanesca. Adult Pico probably would.
The tomatoes should go into the pan immediately after the olives and capers. This will instantly stop the garlic and anchovies from over-browning (you don't want them to turn bitter). I use canned San Marzano tomatoes that I break up by squeezing them between my fingers in a bowl, resulting in a nice mix of purée and juicy chunks.
I bring the whole thing to a simmer, then let it gently cook while the spaghetti finishes.
By this stage, the spaghetti should be close to al dente. There are many folks who say that finishing the spaghetti in the sauce will improve its flavor. I've been doing a series of blind tastings on this theory recently (stay tuned for the full report), and I've found that it isn't necessarily true. There is, however, a good reason to fish your spaghetti out a little early and transfer it to the simmering sauce to finish cooking: It'll enter what Daniel refers to as "pasta bullet time." That is, the pasta finishes cooking drastically slower in the sauce than in the straight-up water, which gives you finer control over hitting that perfect al dente mark.
One thing you do want to do is make sure to add a few spoonfuls of that starchy pasta cooking water in order to help the sauce come together. When you first add the spaghetti to the pan of sauce, it'll look loose and watery. But simmer it hard for a moment while tossing, stirring, and adding pasta water to keep it moist, and the sauce will tighten right up, coating each strand of spaghetti in a thin sheen of flavor.
Some purists may claim that cheese has no place in puttanesca. I claim that there is a seat reserved at the table for cheese in every conceivable gathering known to man. Once the sauce is properly emulsified, I add a handful of finely grated Pecorino Romano—Parmesan would also work fine here if that's what you've got. A little bit of minced fresh parsley, some salt and pepper (go easy on the salt, since the other ingredients already add a ton), a final drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil for some fresh, grassy flavor, and our work is done here. Wham, bam, thank you signorina.
On days when I feel like turning this primo piatto into a full-on meal, I'll stir in a can of good-quality olive oil–packed tuna. The flavors meld perfectly with everything else going on in the pan.
There's no need to stand on ceremony here. This is a quick and dirty dish that tastes great served or eaten directly out of the pan you cooked it in, but plates and extra grated cheese are a nice touch.
That photo above? That's what puttanesca looks like when you have all of your senses about you. But, truth be told, puttanesca tastes best when your senses have been slightly impaired.
The whole thing is sloppy, there's more than a bit too much sauce (both on the pasta and on my camera), that spaghetti is slightly overcooked, but man, did it hit the spot.
Sometimes down and dirty is not just the best way, but the only way to do things.