Why It Works
- Using a low volume of water for the pasta increases the water's starchiness, which will help to bind the sauce.
- Finishing the spaghetti in the sauce coats each noodle with flavor.
Something about late-summer weather really makes me want to cook dishes requiring minimal time, effort, and cleanup, whether that's cacio e pepe or pasta with cherry tomato sauce. Let's add spaghetti puttanesca to the list. The modern, classic Southern Italian pasta dish, flavored with garlic, anchovies, capers, olives, and tomatoes, is one of my favorite eat-it-by-myself meals—it's made 100% from pantry staples, it packs a powerful flavor punch, and, let's be honest, you probably don't want to hang out with someone who's been eating anchovies and garlic, even if you've been partaking of the same.
Weeknight Puttanesca Starts with Garlic Oil
"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 sex workers would lead customers to their doors. This is one of those stories that seems, in the words of Douglas Adams, apocryphal or at least wildly inaccurate.
The first step in pasta puttanesca is very similar 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.
Puttanesca Sauce is All About Proper Prep
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.
In our guide on buying and preparing anchoives, 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. The tomatoes should go into the pan immediately after. 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, then bring the whole thing to a simmer.
A Low-Water Boil and Saucy Finish for Better Spaghetti
Meanwhile, I get the spaghetti cooking, using 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.
To finish the pasta, you'll want to fish your spaghetti out a little early and transfer it to the simmering sauce to finish cooking. This will improve the flavor of the pasta itself and 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 other thing you will 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.
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 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.
But, truth be told, puttanesca tastes best when your senses have been slightly impaired and the whole thing is sloppy, there's more than a bit too much sauce (both on the pasta and on my camera), and the spaghetti is slightly overcooked. Man, does it hit the spot.
6 tablespoons (90ml) extra-virgin olive oil, divided
4 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced or finely chopped by hand (see note)
4 to 6 anchovy fillets, finely chopped (1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons)
1 large pinch red pepper flakes
1/4 cup capers, drained and chopped (about 2 ounces; 60g) (see note)
1/4 cup chopped pitted black olives (about 2 ounces; 60g) (see note)
1 cup (225g) whole peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, roughly broken up by hand (about half a 14-ounce can)
One 5-ounce (140g) can oil-packed tuna (optional)
8 ounces (225g) dried spaghetti
Small handful minced fresh parsley leaves
1 ounce (30g) finely grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
In a medium skillet, combine 4 tablespoons (60ml) oil, garlic, anchovies, and red pepper flakes. Cook over medium heat until garlic is very lightly golden, about 5 minutes. (Adjust heat as necessary to keep it gently sizzling.) Add capers and olives and stir to combine.
Add tomatoes, stir to combine, and bring to a bare simmer. If using, stir in canned tuna, flaking it gently with a fork. Remove from heat.
Meanwhile, in a 12-inch skillet, 12-inch sauté pan, or large saucepan of lightly salted boiling water, cook spaghetti until just shy of al dente, about 2 minutes less than package directions.
Using tongs, transfer pasta to sauce. Alternatively, drain pasta through a colander, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water. Add drained pasta to sauce.
Add a few tablespoons of pasta water to sauce and set over medium-high heat to bring pasta and sauce to a vigorous simmer. Cook, stirring and shaking the pan and adding more pasta water as necessary to keep sauce loose, until pasta is perfectly al dente, 1 to 2 minutes longer. (The pasta will cook more slowly in the sauce than it did in the water.) Remove from heat and stir in remaining olive oil, parsley, and cheese. Season with salt and pepper (be generous with the pepper and scant with the salt—the dish will be plenty salty from the other ingredients). Serve immediately with more grated cheese at the table.
I don't recommend using a Microplane, grater, or garlic press in this dish, as the garlic will end up burning before it can really flavor the oil. Check out our guide on chopping capers and olives for detailed instructions.