First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

What’s cooking today: Spaghetti alla Puttanesca



What’s cooking today: Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Tony Jackman’s spaghetti alla puttanesca. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Puttanesca sauce, centred on capers, olives and anchovies, became popular in the 1960s and has a controversial and most likely apocryphal story attached to it involving the ladies of the night of Naples.

Puttanesca sauce for spaghetti has been around since the World War II years and became widely popular in the Sixties, although sauces containing capers, anchovies, olives and tomatoes were published in recipe books in the 19th century, but not with the name. 

Puttana means prostitute, whore or vulgar, in the vernacular. Whether the name of the dish truly refers to the aroma, if one might attempt to phrase it more or less politely, of the madams of the bordellos of Napoli’s Spanish Quarter, or whether the sauce was thrown together quickly by the whores of Naples between clients, as has also often been claimed, will remain conjecture. But never ruin a good story with a dull fact, so go with the vulgar theory if it enlivens the conversation at your next socially distanced dinner party.

The basic recipe is focused on the sugo, the essential core of flavours the sauce gets from tomatoes, capers and black olives, but anchovies, garlic and other ingredients such as chilli are usually used.

(Serves 2)


3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped

5 anchovy fillets, finely chopped

120 g black olives, halved and stones removed

2 Tbsp capers, drained

½ tsp chilli flakes

1 x 400g can chopped tomatoes

Salt and black pepper to taste

250 g spaghetti (half a packet), cooked until al dente and drained, but reserve 6 Tbsp of the pasta water before draining

3 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped, and extra sprigs for garnishing

A few caperberries for garnish


Heat the olive oil in a large, open pan. I use my Le Creuset buffet, perfect if you have one, or use a heavy frying pan of similar size. Add the chopped onions and garlic and sauté gently until softened, stirring.

Add the chopped anchovies, capers and black olives and continue to simmer for a few minutes.

Add the tomatoes and chilli, return to a simmer, and cook gently for 5 minutes for the flavours to develop. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.

Once the pasta is cooked and drained, add the reserved pasta water to the cooked sauce and stir. It will be absorbed immediately.

Add chopped parsley to the sauce and stir.

Toss the drained pasta through the sauce until it is all well coated.

Served sprinkled with more chopped parsley and, if you like, 2 or 3 caperberries, just for show. They can be chopped up on the plate and mixed into the pasta for a bit of extra caper bite. DM/TGIFood

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at [email protected]

SUBSCRIBE: Our Thank God It’s Food newsletter is sent to subscribers every Friday at 6pm, and published on the TGIFood platform in Daily Maverick. It’s all about great reads on the themes of food and life. Subscribe here.



Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

No Comments, yet

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted