Translated loosely to “lady of the night,” puttanesca is a flavorful sauce with a somewhat sordid history. Pasta puttanesca is a product of Naples (or possibly Rome) and is a siren song of a sauce typically featuring a seductive combination of olives, capers, anchovies, diced tomatoes, and chili flakes, with other ingredients like garlic appearing in some recipes.
Though a bit of research reveals puttanesca is traditionally served with spaghetti, we prefer penne rigate. The small tubes are perfect for picking up the chopped Kalamata olives and the flavor-enhancing capers, while the ridges along the pasta exterior give the tomatoes something to cling onto. It’s a relatively simple dish to cook up, requiring only two burners on your stovetop: one for the pasta and one for the puttanesca.
Begin by preparing your ingredients for the puttanesca. Slice, chop, and arrange the ingredients so that when it comes time, you’ll be able to add it all quickly without rushing.
Begin boiling a large pot of salted water for the penne rigate.
In a sauté pan, add the olive oil and the finely sliced garlic. Heat garlic slowly over low-medium heat to prevent it from burning. Stir it occasionally and cook for only 1-2 minutes.
At this point you can add the tomato paste (optional). Stir until the tomato paste coats the garlic, then add the diced plum tomatoes. Let the tomates simmer for about 10 minutes. If your sauté pan seems too dry, add a little tap water, a tablespoon at a time.
Tomato paste is a great way to give any sauce the deep flavors associated with an “all-day simmer” without actually spending multiple hours simmering a sauce.
If the salted water in the large saucepan has begun to boil, add the entire box of penne rigate. You want to cook the pasta until barely al dente. Maybe even a little under al dente. The pasta will finish cooking in the sauce.
To the sauté pan with the simmering tomatoes, add the olives, capers, anchovies, and red pepper flakes. Stir until combined and let simmer for 5 minutes. Add salt to taste.
Using a large slotted spoon or round mesh skimmer, transfer the penne to the puttanesca sauce. Reserve the pasta water. You might need to use it to add moisture to the sauce.
Never get rid of your pasta water until you are absolutely sure you’re done cooking. Pasta water is liquid gold and possesses unique binding properties.
Once the pasta is transferred, stir to fully combine with the puttanesca. Add pasta water if needed. Cook the pasta in the puttanesca for 1-to-2 minutes, or until al dente. Taste for doneness and for seasoning. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Turn off the heat. Add the chopped parsley and stir until combined.
Remove from heat and serve immediately with grated parmesan cheese and some crusty Italian bread.