Melissa Elsmo

Years ago, I hadn’t learned to love anchovies, was just warming to the pungent flavor of briney olives and barely knew how to identify caper, let alone make sense of their punchy flavor profile–so the first time someone served me Pasta Puttenesca it makes sense that I was more than a little skeptical.

Like most folks, I had enjoyed countless tomato based pasta sauces, but never one that contained so many of the ingredients I thought I hated. Much to my culinary surprise, these commonly despised ingredients came together in such an extraordinary way that I could only describe the flavor of a proper Puttenesca as addictive!

Literally translated, Puttenesca, means “in the style of the whore” and history suggests the sauce was developed by ladies of the night in Naples. Whether used for sustenance or as a tool to lure gentleman into local brothels, the spicy sauce was so quick to prepare that prostitutes could remain focused on their customers for as much of the night as possible.

The mouthwatering dish has a checkered past, but tastes irresistible and is conveniently made from nothing more than a few simple Italian pantry staples. Shelf stable anchovies, tomatoes, chilies and herbs marry seamlessly with the olives and capers to yield a unique sauce that is both warming and refreshing. 

In my version of Puttenesca sauce, dissolving high quality anchovies in olive oil at the beginning of the cooking process allows the assertive fish fillets to delicately permeate the finished dish without over powering the other ingredients. Taking additional care to strike a blissful balance between hot and spicy chilies, salty capers, and sweet basil and tomatoes ensures the beautifully textured sauce delivers maximum flavor with minimal effort.

Pairing this piquant pasta with a crunchy side dish salad is essential to bring further balance to the plate. A simple lemony salad featuring licorice flavored fennel, bitter radicchio, and buttery beans blends clean flavors in a manner befitting any Italian inspired meal. Thanks to the puttanas of Naples we can enjoy a spicy pasta dinner state side without needing an extensive grocery list or hours to spend stirring the sauce. Simply toss the salad, open a chianti and light some candles to bring the flavors of Naples to life!

Quick and Spicy Pasta Puttenesca-8 servings

This flavorful sauce is also lovely served over a piece of perfectly grilled salmon or as a topping for crostini. Serve this reliable dish with Italian Summer salad, prosciutto wrapped melon, and fresh bread for a memorable family meal.


  • 2 Tablespoons of olive oil
  • 3 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
  • 1 medium white onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon of dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon of dried basil
  • ½-1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (more or less to taste)
  • 1-28 ounce can of diced tomatoes with juice
  • 1 Cup mixed black and green pitted olives, halved
  • ½ Cup nonpareil capers
  • 1 Pound of buccatini or thick spaghetti cooked according to package directions (1/4 C cooking water reserved)
  • 8 Fresh Basil Leaves, shredded or Italian parsley leaves
  • Freshly crumbled Parmigiano-Reggiano


Heat the olive oil in a large high sided skillet over high heat and add the minced anchovies. Cook stirring constantly until the anchovies nearly dissolve (be careful…they will sputter up a little bit when they hit the hot oil). Add the onion and reduce heat to medium. Cook until the onions are soft and transparent (about 8 minutes) before adding the garlic, oregano and red pepper flakes. Cook until garlic is fragrant (about 30 seconds) and add the tomatoes. Bring sauce to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes or until flavors meld. Stir in the olives, capers, and reserved pasta water and keep warm. Toss the cooked pasta with the sauce and garnish with the basil leaves and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Serve at once.

Italian Salad-8 servings

Feel free to add some fresh tomatoes or sweet orange segments to this crunchy side dish salad to change it up for variety.


  • 8 ounces fresh green beans, trimmed
  • 1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 14-ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 small head of radicchio, shredded
  • 1 romaine heart, torn
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
  • ¼ Cup of Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Shaved Parmesan or rustic croutons (optional)


Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil and blanch the trimmed beans for 3 minutes or until crisp-tender. Transfer the beans to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process and help retain their vibrant green color. Drain the cold beans and dry them in a few paper towels. To assemble the salad, toss the green beans, fennel, red onion, cannellini beans, radicchio and romaine in a large serving bowl. Whisk together the lemon juice and mustard. Gradually whisk in the olive olive oil and season the dressing with salt and pepper. Toss the dressing with the salad and top if Parmesan or croutons if desired and serve at once.

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