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  • Writer's pictureLydia Gerratt

Spaghetti alla puttanesca

spaghetti alla puttanesa

This pasta dish comes from Naples and apparently the story behind the saucy name, Whore’s spaghetti, is that this recipe was whipped up by the Neapolitan ‘ladies’ in between clients as it was quick to cook, super tasty and filling……

I was taught how to cook this classic dish from Campania years ago when I used to work as a Food Buyer for Waitrose and I was sent on a week long cooking trip to the South of Italy. We were based in a cooking school close to Naples, up in the hills behind Sorrento. I remember the chef literally threw this dish together in the pan. A few anchovy fillets, a handful of black olives, another of capers, garlic, red chilli and an even bigger handful of the local Piennolo midi plum tomatoes.

This is one of those rare recipes where the finished dish tastes nothing like the individual ingredients – each ingredient adds something to the sum total to create an incredibly more-ish pasta sauce. The natural glutamate in the anchovy, tomatoes and Parmesan give you a wallop of savoury umami-ness.

You can’t buy Piennolo tomatoes here, what little is grown is used locally in Campania. The next best variety to use is baby plum as it is almost as sweet and ‘fleshy’ as Piennolos.

Don’t be scared of the anchovy. It does not make this sauce taste fishy. I had no idea, until I did this cooking trip that anchovies have been used since Roman times to give dishes a savoury flavour and were not used to impart fishiness. Did you know that anchovy is a key ingredient in Worcestershire sauce and it’s what makes Gentlemen’s relish so relishy?!

Before life with my two little boys, I used to ratchet up the chilli – I loved it hot. Now, I have to cook this dish without chilli so my boys can join in. To compensate, I drizzle a potent chilli oil over my plate of spaghetti alla puttanesca. I’ve had this bottle of olive oil crammed full of dried birds eye chillies on the go for years, I just keep topping it up with olive oil and a few extra chillies when it starts to run a bit low. It’s phenomenally hot!

Spaghetti alla puttanesca

Miraculous ingredient: Anchovy fillets, Kalamata black olives, non pareille capers, Santini plum tomatoes (M&S sells this variety), good quality spaghetti (Giuseppe Cocco is very good), Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan)

Spaghetti alla puttanesca


4 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

4 anchovy fillets finely sliced

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 fresh bird’s eye chilli, finely chopped or ¼ teaspoon dried red chilli flakes

60g pitted Kalamata black olives, cut in half

50g non pareille capers in brine, drained

400g fresh baby plum tomatoes cut in half

¼ teaspoon sugar (only use sugar when making this recipe during the winter as tomatoes do not have enough natural sugar to balance their acidity at this time)

15g fresh parsley, finely chopped

350g Spaghetti (Giuseppe Cocco is a good quality Italian pasta)

Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano to serve


Place a large pan that can hold a good 3 litres of water onto a high heat. When the water starts to boil add a teaspoon of salt and all the spaghetti.

Put a dry medium size frying pan on a low heat to warm up while you get the ingredients ready. Add all the extra virgin olive oil to the warm pan, turn the heat to high and fry the finely sliced anchovy fillets. Move them around in the pan with a wooden spoon, until they almost dissolve in the oil. Add the garlic and chilli and fry for 30 seconds. Don’t let the garlic brown and release any bitterness.

Add the olives, capers and halved baby plum tomatoes, stir and press down on the tomatoes with a wooden spoon every so often to hurry up the cooking. The sauce is ready when all the tomatoes have broken down and released a lot of tomato juice to create a sauce. Add all the chopped fresh parsley and stir. Turn the heat off.

When the spaghetti is cooked al dente (soft on the outside but slightly hard in the middle), lift the spaghetti out of its water with a pasta spoon and put it into the pan with the sauce. Add a few tablespoons of pasta water to help create a sauce (the starch in the pasta water thickens the sauce). Serve immediately with lots of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano and a good drizzle of your very best extra virgin olive oil.

Preparation time 10 minutes, cooking 10 minutes, serves 4

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