Italian Puttanesca is bold, robust and salty – a perfect low carb sauce for a bed of spaghetti squash (or pasta if you are not low carb). This recipe uses smoked tomatoes, but it is equally delicious with tomatoes that are not smoked.Jump to Recipe
What is Puttanesca?
Puttanesca is usually associated with Naples as its place of origin. The term itself translates roughly to “lady of the night.” (aka prostitute), and some say therefore that the dish originated in the brothels of the Spanish Quarters.
Others claim it was invented in the 1950s at a famous Ischia restaurant (Rancio Fellone) late at night to satisfy a group of customers who complained that they were hungry. They supposedly told the co-owner (Annarita Cuomo) to just make something simple with whatever he had left over that night.
The co-owner had some tomatoes, olives and capers which ended up forming the base of a sauce that became quite popular in the restaurant. From this story, puttanesca came to be referenced all over Italy as a pasta sauce that was easy to cook, without frills or complicated preparation.
It’s made by combining anchovies, capers, olives, and optional ingredients like garlic, red pepper flakes, chile peppers, and tomatoes into a truly tasty gravy.
The dish itself was considered a humble dish, made with common cupboard ingredients.
Key Puttanesca Ingredients
The dish itself was considered a humble dish, made with common cupboard ingredients. The sauce is typically made by combining anchovies, capers, olives, and optional ingredients like garlic, red pepper flakes, chile peppers, and tomatoes into a robustly flavored gravy.
Within the different regions of Italy, a Sicilian version of this sauce has green peppers and one from Palermo has anchovies, raisins and olives. The most famous Neopolitan version has anchovies and oregano.
The base however is most often the same, with bold, salty ingredients of olives, capers, tomatoes and garlic.
Pasta Puttanesca Pugliese with Tomatoes
For all things Italian my first inclination is to go to Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s recipes, so I went back to one of her earlier cookbooks that focused on Italy’s Farmhouse Kitchens, The Italian Country Table.
A recipe for a vibrant, spicy “streetwalkers pasta” (aka prostitutes’ pasta) sounded like a good starting place.
Kasper’s dish was called “Pasta Puttanesca Pugliese” and it sounded great but it was more of a fresh raw dish and I was looking for a warm cooked recipe. Her recipe was easy to modify and it turned out wonderful.
Since the ingredients were so robust, I decided they could handle the additional boldness of smoked tomatoes. The intense smokiness of the tomatoes paired well with the salty umami from anchovy fillets, black olives, and Romano cheese.
Hard to go wrong with those ingredients. It did my smoked heirloom tomatoes proud. If you want to get the smoky tomato flavor in your dish, try this smoked tomato vinegar.
Substitution for the Pasta
Now of course pasta is not low carb and this rich tomato sauce needs a bed of some sort of “noodle” to soak up all the goodness and give it some “chew”.
There are zucchini noodles and other alternatives available for low carbers, but I prefer spaghetti squash.
Using spaghetti squash as a bed of noodles allows a mild medium that won’t distract from the puttanesca sauce, but still has enough heft to add the desired texture. The slight squash flavor is a nice addition also.
I made a non-low-carb version using penne noodles, just to test the difference. It was good, but I actually preferred the spaghetti noodles. Here is what it looked like with penne.
I see Mark Bittman also includes a version of puttanesca in his “How to Cook Everything“ book, but it does not include anchovies.
Alternatives to Using Smoked Tomatoes
This dish is excellent with regular tomatoes, so don’t feel that you need to purchase smoked tomatoes or smoke your own. It was just a twist I wanted to try.
Low carb Italian Puttanesca
- sharp knife
- ¼ cup fresh basil leaves tightly packed
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 tsp coarse salt
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium onion chopped
- 28 oz peeled, plum tomatoes
- 2 fresh tomatoes if available
- 2 tsp anchovy paste or two anchovy filets, chopped
- ½ cup olives pitted & coarsely chopped
- 2 Tbsp capers
- 3 tsp smoked tomato vinegar alternatively use 2 tsp red wine vinegar
- 1 Tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 spaghetti squash If not low carb, use 1 lb of pasta of your choice
- ½ cup Parmesan cheese grated (can use Romano cheese)
- With a sharp knife, mince together the basil, garlic, and hot pepper flakes with the coarse salt and set aside (Alternatively, mash together with a mortar and pestle)
- In a large skillet or dutch oven heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the onion and saute until soft and lightly caramelized, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic-herb mix and cook an additional 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the remaining 6 ingredients through the pepper and simmer until the sauce is thickened and slightly reduced (about 15 – 20 minutes). This can simmer while baking the spaghetti squash (or cooking the pasta).
- Bake the spaghetti squash in the oven for about an hour at 375 F. (Or cook the pasta in rapidly boiling water, stirring often, until there is no raw flour taste (about 7-10 minutes for penne). Using a fork, remove the strands of squash (or drain the pasta if using pasta)
- Put the spaghetti squash strands (or the drained pasta) in a large pot and place over medium heat. Spoon most of the Puttanesca sauce into the pot and cook a few minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed.
- Taste for seasoning, and garnish with some chopped basil and grated parmesan or romano cheese and serve. Place small bowls of extra sauce, and extra cheese to pass around for individual tastes.
Watch the Step by Step Video for More Details
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