Let’s get it out of the way: Yes, puttanesca literally translates to “of, relating to, or characteristic of a prostitute,” to quote the OED. I’ll wait while you finish chortling. It seems that no food writer can resist elbowing their readers in the ribs, making ill-advised jokes and double entendres at the mere mention of pasta puttanesca. The name is often said to have originated with old-timey courtesans, who ostensibly favored it because it was quick enough to make in between appointments, or because it smelled so good while cooking that it lured clients in from the street. But on further consideration, neither of these origin stories seems particularly plausible—I mean, sex workers aren’t the only people who appreciate quick, aromatic meals. According to food historian Jeremy Parzen, the name has more to do with the practical use of puttanesca in Italian than its literal definition: Italians use puttana (and related words) almost the way we use shit, as an all-purpose profanity, so pasta alla puttanesca might have originated with someone saying, essentially, “I just threw a bunch of shit from the cupboard into a pan.”
Regardless of its etymology, that’s what puttanesca sauce is: a bunch of shit from the cupboard, thrown into a pan. And it’s really good. That’s because the ingredients it relies on for flavor—garlic, capers, olives, anchovies, and crushed red pepper, primarily—are assertive, pungent, and invigorating. Unlike traditional tomato sauce, which is tomatoey through and through, puttanesca sauce is a study in opposites: Anchovies and olives are salty where tomatoes are sweet, oily where tomatoes are watery, dark in color where tomatoes are vivid. The combination of these contradictory ingredients is—to borrow a term from the label on my jar of capers—nonpareil.
There are two main errors people commit when making puttanesca sauce. The first is not using enough garlic, capers, olives, anchovies, and crushed red pepper. I have seen recipes that call for a mere tablespoon of capers, only three or four anchovies, and a pinch of red pepper flakes, per large can of tomatoes. This is not enough! Throw your seasonings into the pot with abandon, and don’t hesitate to add an entire tin of anchovies: They melt into the sauce, adding a nearly unidentifiable undertone of umami. If you’re still scared, keep in mind that this is a sauce, not a soup: It’s supposed to be intensely flavored, so as to keep your pasta interesting. (It doesn’t have to be pasta, though: I’m hard-pressed to think of a bean, vegetable, fish, or meat that wouldn’t be improved by puttanesca sauce.)
The second mistake is not adding lemon zest to their sauce. Lemon zest is not a frequent presence on puttanesca recipe ingredient lists, but it is a crucial component: Lemon’s tanginess goes famously with fish, and with olives, and with capers, so why wouldn’t it go well with puttanesca sauce? Lemon is the linchpin here, turning a motley crew of pantry items into a sauce you don’t want to stop eating.
Yield: 4 servings
Time: 45 to 60 minutes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
Salt and black pepper
One 2-ounce can anchovies packed in oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
One 26- to 28-ounce box or can chopped or crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons drained capers
½ cup pitted black olives, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
Grated zest of 1 lemon
12 ounces spaghetti or other pasta
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, put the olive oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the anchovies and garlic and cook, stirring, until the anchovies disintegrate and the garlic has softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomato paste and crushed red pepper and continue to stir for 1 minute, then add the tomatoes, capers, and olives.* Cover the pot, adjust the heat so the mixture simmers gently, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s thick and saucy, 25 to 30 minutes. Stir in the basil and lemon zest, and taste and adjust the seasoning.
2. When the water comes to a boil, salt it generously and add the pasta. Cook until al dente, usually 7 to 8 minutes, depending on the package instructions. Reserve about 1 cup of the pasta cooking liquid and then drain the pasta. Toss the pasta with the sauce, adding the reserved cooking liquid as needed to thin out the sauce. Serve hot.
Correction, Dec. 22, 2015: This recipe originally omitted instructions for adding the crushed red pepper. The post has been updated to include the instructions.