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Pasta alla puttanesca

In Italy, una puttanesca is a prostitute. I don?t know why this dish is associated with the world?s oldest profession - it must be far more enjoyable than paid-for sex. It?s also exceedingly quick to produce and quite impressive, because it has a really authentic ethnic Italian feel about it.

I first met it in the Spaghetti House in Exeter (an excellent establishment), while planning my daughter Sarah?s wedding. There?s a recipe in Claudia Roden?s Mediterranean Cooking but it?s quite different, and Loyd Grossman has lent his name to a sauce which says it?s alla puttanesca (I?d love to hear him trying to pronounce it!) but contains tomatoes. Does everything that purports to be Italian have to have tomatoes in? For recipes that don?t, read the two River Café cookbooks.

This is my attempt to recreate the Devon version from memory. I usually use either spaghetti or tagliatelle (the green-and-white paglia e fieno kind is nice - Sainsbury?s do a good fresh version).


  • 100g to 120g of pasta per person, depending on how greedy you are
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • A small onion (or half a bigger one)
  • Garlic to taste
  • One tin of anchovy fillets (about 8) in olive oil (I recently found kilner jars containing anchovy fillets in oil in a French hypermarket: they cost just half what our tinned ones do, with the jar as a bonus)
  • One tablespoon of capers
  • A dozen or so black olives (Kalamata are best)
  • Black pepper


  1. If the pasta is dried, start boiling it. If it is fresh, have the pan ready on the simmer.
  2. Chop the onion and garlic finely.
  3. Get a frying pan fairly hot and pour in a couple of tablespoonfuls (ish) of olive oil.
  4. Grind in generous black pepper and add the onion and garlic. Fry briefly, then turn the heat down. Frying the pepper makes the oil nice and spicy.
  5. Cut up the anchovy fillets and mash them into the oil. They should more-or-less dissolve. You might as well tip in the oil from the tin as well, provided it really is olive oil - every little helps.
  6. Cook gently for a few seconds, then turn off the heat.
  7. Pit and chop the olives into quarters or a bit smaller.
  8. If using fresh pasta, cook it now. (No, I?m not going to tell you how long - follow the instructions on the packet. It?s up to you whether you eat your pasta al dente or soggy or something in between.)
  9. If using dried pasta, wait ?till it?s cooked.
  10. Drain the pasta in a colander, shaking and tipping to get rid of all the water.
  11. Tip the contents of the frying pan into the pasta pan and put it on a low heat.
  12. Throw in the capers and the olives.
  13. Grind in some fresh black pepper (this will be fragrant, whereas the fried pepper will be merely hot).
  14. Pour in some more olive oil (for flavour and fragrance).
  15. Return the pasta to the pan and turn it thoroughly in the oil.

Serve onto hot plates, digging the bits out of the corners of the pan. Offer freshly grated or flaked Parmesan, though it is probably a bit over the top - you don?t have to sprinkle cheese on everything Italian, either.

You can add all sorts of other things to this, but I prefer to keep it simple, so that the anchovy-and-pepper-flavoured oil (of which there should be lots), the capers and the olives are all tasted separately.

Tuck a napkin in your collar (the oil tends to splash a bit) and enjoy. Mop up any spare oil with good bread (ciabatta is reasonably authentic).

If you haven?t got a pasta server (like a deep spoon with prongs all round it), get one; when your wooden or plastic one gives out, as it will, get a stainless steel one.

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.