Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

I’ve been making this for years, generally none too well. Today, by accident, I made one of the best ever.

Spaghetti PuttanescaWhile all pasta sauce has to be big enough to flavour a lot of carbohydrate, puttanesca is huge. Why so? Ah, how to explain without offending the sensibilities of your maiden aunts, should they chance upon this post? Puttana is Italian for prostitute. This dish originated in Naples, more specifically in dockside cafes where working girls would take their ease after a hard night’s work. Certain things are distasteful; if things leave a bad taste in a mouth,  strong flavours can take it away. That’s what this dish is about. If it’s not blowing your socks off, it’s missing the point.

Traditionally the final ingredient would be sliced black olives. I don’t use them in my version, as most of those we get here are unpleasantly bitter, but I’ve included them in the recipe. While you can tone down the chilli to your taste, a kick of sorts is essential. Traditionally served with spaghetti (the classic Neapolitan pasta – that’s why it’s held in some disdain up north), but use whatever you fancy. 50g dry per person as a starter, 80g for a main.


For the sauce – serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a starter

2 small onions, very finely diced; 2 cloves garlic, crushed; 1 chilli, finely chopped (I left the seeds in – your choice); big squirt of tomato puree; 4 anchovy fillets, finely chopped; 400 ml tin tomatoes or passata; splash of red wine (optional); 2 – 3 tsp capers (in brine); coarsely chopped black olives (optional); black pepper; olive oil.


Gently fry the onions, garlic and chill in oil. Add some of the oil from the anchovy container. Cook until the onions are transparent.  Stir in the tomato puree and cook for a minute. Pour in the tomatoes, red wine if using, and add the anchovies. Simmer for a while until the onions are almost done. I like a little bite. Add 2 – 3 tsp capers and cook for another minute or two. A grating or two of pepper is good, then check the seasoning. If you want more heat chuck in some dried chilli flakes.  If you want to use the olives add them at the very last minute and stir in to warm.

Italians always add the pasta to the sauce and heat up. I am never accurate enough with my sauce to pasta ratios to do that.


  1. Robert Corrigan on 22nd February 2020 at 8:38 am

    Nice simple recipe. I always add my pasta to the sauce. I would definitely add olives, but miss out the anchovies. I just cannot eat them.
    Enjoyable as always.

    • Tom Johnston on 22nd February 2020 at 10:50 am

      It does need a salty kick. You could try it with tuna and some fish sauce and/or Lea and Perrins in place of the anchovies. Mind you, if it’s an allergy, then L & P is no use for you either.

      • Tom Johnston on 24th February 2020 at 9:55 am

        Or see the most recent comment from Isabel.

  2. BHB on 23rd February 2020 at 8:19 pm

    A great recipe for a dark, dreich and dismal day, which brought back happy memories of sunnier and warmer times when we spent a very enjoyable long weekend in Penzance.
    Inspired by a visit to the Pilchard Museum in Newlyn, we bought some salt pilchards from a St. Ives’ fishmonger, which came with a free recipe for Spaghetti alla Puttanesca, using produced pilchards. The dish was such a success it was adopted as a regular favourite, much praised. My Head Chef basked in the glory.
    It is little known that for over 450 years Cornish salt pilchards were exported to Italy. Sadly, the Newlyn Pilchard Museum is no more and salting of the fish there has ceased: I hope the St Ives fishmonger is still in existence.
    So might I recommend salt pilchards as a possible alternative?
    And Penzance as a week-end destination – especially if you’re a railway enthusiast?

    • Tom Johnston on 24th February 2020 at 9:54 am

      Morning, Isabel. Thanks for replying. Fascinating stuff. For reasons of space I’ve edited it a little. I hope you continue to enjoy the site. If you have any favourite recipes, email them to me at

  3. Nigel on 9th March 2020 at 6:09 pm

    My source of salty kick is to do the soffrito using the oil from the anchovy pot.

    • Tom Johnston on 9th March 2020 at 7:36 pm

      Hi, Nigel. I actually mention that in the recipe.(Second sentence after the asterisks.) Thanks for the input, though. have you been affected by flooding again? Regards,

  4. archly on 9th May 2020 at 11:01 am

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    • Tom Johnston on 10th May 2020 at 10:59 am

      Copyright is tricky. I’m not sure where you are based. In British law it vests in the author of an article or the person who took a photograph. So far, so easy.

      But how do you enforce it? Well, you go to court – if you can find the person who infringed your rights. And if you can find the tens of thousands of pounds to fight a case, with no guarantee you’ll get anything back. And, one final thought, there is much case law to suggest that copyright doesn’t apply to recipes.

      My advice? Remember that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. By all means expose and call out those who are copying you. You may embarrass them into stopping. But why not just relax and smell the coffee? Or, even better, read Tom’s Food! every week.

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