Looking to change up your pasta game? Try this easy puttanesca sauce recipe. It’s positively bursting with bold, robust flavor!

Spaghetti alla puttanesca nestled into a white ceramic bowl.

Today I’m sharing one of my favorite Italian foods: puttanesca sauce!

I didn’t discover this recipe until I was in my adulthood. Even though my dad was half Italian, most of his family was so assimilated into American culture that they didn’t really pass down all the old-world traditions.

It was when I worked at a catering company that pasta puttanesca made its way into my life. One of the other cooks there made it for our “family meal” regularly, and I came to love it!

I consider puttanesca like a level above regular tomato sauce. It’s got some add-ins that make it incredibly full-flavored and robust. These special ingredients hail from the southern-most parts of the Mediterranean, so you’ll get those briny, bright, and pleasingly bitter flavors that will really bowl you over!

I consider myself kind of an expert on Italian recipes. I’ve devoted much of my life to learning and perfecting them, and I’ve got plenty of recipes here to prove it!

If you love Italian food too, you’ll definitely want to give my lemon pasta, Bolognese sauce, and shrimp scampi a try!

Pasta puttanesca served in a white bowl with torn fresh basil.

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What is puttanesca sauce?

The word “puttanesca” translates into something along the lines of “like a prostitute would make.” I know.

The exact meaning is a little vague. It can also mean “stinky.”

This probably because the sauce contains some highly aromatic ingredients such as onions, garlic, anchovy, olives, and capers.

Trust me, it’s a lot better than it sounds. These funky flavors marry together with the bright, tangy-sweet taste of tomato in the most gorgeous way.

Nap freshly cooked spaghetti (or any kind of pasta really) in puttanesca sauce and it’s a dream come true. A real flavor bomb!

Why this is the best puttanesca recipe

  1. Tastes amazing: The balance of bright, sweet, salty, and bitter is exactly right.
  2. Simple ingredients: Most of the ingredients here are shelf-stable, so this is the kind of meal you can whip up on short notice.
  3. Easy to make: This sauce comes together in just a few minutes.
  4. Special: Puttanesca sauce will elevate your boring pasta night into a new and exciting level!

What does pasta puttanesca taste like?

This sauce consists mostly of tomato, so you get that tangy sweet flavor that you already know and love.

But it also has some exciting and really in-your-face add-ins, like Kalamata olives, briny capers, and nutty anchovy. All of these play off of the base with pops of intense flavor that will keep you going back for another bite!


Ingredients for making puttanesca sauce, with text labels.

Oil: I like to use extra-virgin olive oil to cook the onion in. It has a higher smoke point and a robust flavor that mirrors that of the olives in the sauce.

Onion: Chopped, to add sweetness and heartiness to the sauce.

Seasonings: A combination of garlic powder, onion powder], Italian seasoning, kosher salt, and crushed red pepper flakes.

Olives: I like pitted Kalamata olives, roughly chopped, but you can use another kind or a combination of different kinds if you prefer.

Capers: Capers are the berry of a little Mediterranean shrub that have been pickled in a briny solution. They add pops of salty, tangy flavor to your puttanesca sauce.

Tomato paste: Provides intensely concentrated tomato flavor.

Anchovy paste: This product usually comes in a tube so you can just squeeze it right into the pot. It’s just ground up anchovies. They may sound and smell kinda gross but they lend a nutty, salty depth of flavor that brings out all the best in this sauce.

Vinegar: A splash of balsamic vinegar balances this sauce with its inherent sweetness.

Crushed tomatoes: The basis of the sauce. Just get the plain kind, so you can season and flavor them yourself.

Sugar: You may or may not feel the need to balance out the acidity of the sauce with a pinch of sugar.

Special equipment

How to make puttanesca sauce

This easy pasta sauce recipe comes together in 4 simple steps.

Step 1: Cook the onion

Start by heating the olive oil in your big pot over a medium flame. Once it starts to shimmer, toss in the onion, garlic powder, onion powder, Italian seasoning, salt, and crushed red pepper.

Olive oil, onions, and seasonings in a large enameled cast iron pot.

Right away your kitchen will start to smell incredible!

Step 2: Add-ins

Once the onions have gone soft and tender, add the olives, capers, and tomato paste.

Adding olives, capers, and tomato paste to cooked onions.

Step 3: Caramelize

Stir in the tomato paste until everything is coated, and allow it to cook a little bit.

Cooking tomato paste together with other puttanesca ingredients.

You want some of it to caramelize on the bottom of the pot, creating a film known in the fancy French chef world as “fond.” This brown film lends the most incredibly complex flavor to your sauce!

Step 4: Deglaze and simmer

Next, stir in the balsamic vinegar. This ingredient not only adds sweetness and tang, but it will also pull that fond up off the bottom of the pot and into the sauce.

At this stage, you can also squeeze in a squirt of anchovy paste.

Then stir in the crushed tomatoes, turn the heat down as low as it will go, place a lid on the pot (slightly ajar) and allow everything to simmer so the flavors can meld and marry.

How to serve puttanesca sauce

Once the sauce has simmered to your liking, give it a taste. You might want to sweeten it up with a little sugar if it tastes too acidic.

Adding sugar to balance the flavors of puttanesca sauce.

At this point, the sauce is ready to be enjoyed!

Boil up some pasta for a minute less than the package directs, then drain it and add it to the pot. Toss the noodles in the sauce to get them coated. This step allows you to finish cooking the spaghetti in the sauce, so it picks up those flavors.

Pile it into bowls, then top it with a generous grating of parmigiano reggiano and a shower of freshly torn basil. You can also add a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes if you like, then dive in!

I especially love to serve this meal with a tray of garlic knots on the side! A slice or two of ciabatta or focaccia would also be really nice!

Expert tips

Chop evenly: It’s not a bad idea to chop both the onion and the olives to approximately the same size.

Spice it up: For a spicy puttanesca sauce recipe, add more crushed red pepper!

Give it some contrast: Tear the leaves of fresh basil into small pieces and sprinkle them on top of your pasta puttanesca. The fresh, herbal taste provides an unbeatable contrast to all the heavier, more robust flavors.

Use any kind of pasta: Spaghetti or penne are probably the most traditional, but feel free to use any kind of pasta shape. You could even serve this sauce over gnocchi!

Puttanesca sauce served over thin spaghetti with basil and parmesan in the background.

Frequently asked questions

Do I have to use anchovy paste?

Honestly, you can make any recipe any way you like! I’m not the food police, lol!

Go ahead and leave it out if you like, but know that as funky as it smells it adds a flavor that’s amazing. It’s nutty and salty and umami, and it rounds out all the flavors in a truly stellar way.

What if I don’t want to add sugar?

I often add sugar to sauces like this one if they become too acidic as they cook down.

But if you’d rather leave it out, you can balance that acidity with a pinch or two of baking soda instead.

Slow cooker puttanesca or instant pot puttanesca

If you’d like to make your sauce ahead of time, do all the sauteeing on the stove then transfer your sauce to the crock pot so it can simmer all day on the lowest possible heat. When you get home all you have to do is boil up the pasta!

This will also work in an instant pot. Cook the veggies on the “saute” setting, then deglaze, add the crushed tomatoes, and turn it down to “simmer.”

My sauce is too thick! What should I do?

If your puttanesca simmers for a very long time it will release a lot of its moisture in the form of steam. This is known as “reducing.”

Don’t worry, all you need to do is stir in some water to thin it to a better consistency!

How to store leftover puttanesca

Pop any leftovers into an airtight container. They should keep in the fridge for up to a week or in the freezer for a few months.

Thaw in the fridge and reheat in the microwave or in a (lidded) pot on the stove over low heat.

What is the serving size?

This recipe makes enough to serve 4 people generously.

The nutritional info provided below is for 1/4th of the whole batch, but it doesn’t include pasta or any of the suggested toppings. It’s just for the sauce only.

Close-up image of spaghetti puttanesca recipe, featuring black olives and capers.

A few more of my best Italian food recipes

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Spaghetti alla puttanesca nestled into a white ceramic bowl.
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Puttanesca Sauce

Servings: 4 servings
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Looking to change up your pasta game? Try this easy puttanesca sauce recipe. It's positively bursting with bold, robust flavor!



  • In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over a medium flame until shimmering.
  • Stir in the onion, garlic powder, onion powder, Italian seasoning, salt, and crushed red pepper.
  • Continue to cook, stirring, until the onions are soft and translucent (approx. 5 minutes).
  • Stir in the tomato paste, olives, and capers, and cook (stirring) until a brown film appears on the bottom of the pot.
  • Stir in the balsamic vinegar and anchovy paste.
  • Add the crushed tomatoes.
  • When the sauce reaches a low boil, turn the heat down to its lowest setting, place a lid slightly ajar on the pot, and simmer to desired doneness (I usually give it about 20 minutes).
  • Taste, and add sugar if needed.
  • Toss with cooked pasta (such as spaghetti or penne), add grated parmigiano reggiano, freshly torn basil leaves, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, and a pinch more crushed red pepper flakes, if desired.*


*These ingredients are not included in the nutritional info.  
Serving: 0.25batch, Calories: 267kcal, Carbohydrates: 32g, Protein: 7g, Fat: 15g, Saturated Fat: 2g, Polyunsaturated Fat: 2g, Monounsaturated Fat: 10g, Cholesterol: 3mg, Sodium: 2.008mg, Potassium: 1.105mg, Fiber: 7g, Sugar: 20g, Vitamin A: 1.223IU, Vitamin C: 29mg, Calcium: 126mg, Iron: 5mg
Cuisine: Italian
Course: Sauce
Tried this recipe?Mention @bakingamoment on Instagram or tag #bakingamoment.


  • Allie

    Allie is the creator and owner of Baking a Moment. She has been developing, photographing, videographing, and writing and sharing recipes here since 2012.

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