Eight ingredients, plus pantry staples. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a feast for family or friends.
Pasta puttanesca embodies some of the best qualities of Italian cuisine: The simple ingredients come together to paint a portrait of the dish's native region, the enticing aroma brings everyone crowding into the kitchen, and the final result is filling and deeply satisfying.
The sauce is simple to make and takes on all manner of variations depending on who’s standing at the stovetop. Traditionally, anchovies are considered to be an essential ingredient, but some areas (and people) prefer to do without them, relying instead on capers to provide a salty tang. Some cooks add red onion or lemon juice. Others say adding Parmesan cheese is a crime. In my experience, you can fudge any of the ingredient measurements with little penalty.
My version of the sauce begins with a base of olive oil bolstered with minced garlic, anchovies and red onion. You want the garlic to be deepening in color, the onion turning translucent and the anchovies disintegrating before you add the tomatoes. Use a fork to break down the tomatoes and olives. You want to leave the sauce on the stovetop long enough to thicken into a deep red brew of salty, oily flavors, with piquant notes from the olives and capers and a bit of smoky heat from the red pepper flakes.
For the pasta, spaghetti or linguine are traditionally used; I prefer bucatini, which is thick, long and tubular, allowing it to hold more of the sauce.
Because the dish has its origins in or around Naples, serving a wine from southern Italy makes a lot of sense. Given the sauce's considerable saltiness and the sweet-tart tang of the tomatoes, opt for reds that balance those elements with a core of refreshing acidity, plump red fruit flavors and moderate tannins. (Lightly salty food can smooth out tannins, but very salty foods and aggressive tannins can clash harshly.) It's a plus if the wine has herbal notes to complement the tart capers and olives.
A Primitivo from Puglia, with its red fruit flavors and herb and spice inflections, worked best of the wines we tried; this bottling, from Amastuola winery, was certified organic. On the nose, the wine bloomed with raspberry and cherry notes that lay smoothly over loamy details. With the food, the Primitivo's flavors of dried herbs helped pull out the savory characteristics of the onions and black olives especially. The medium-bodied wine invited another bite—and another, and another—of the warm pasta.
Pair with a Primitivo from southern Italy with bright fruit flavors and herbal undertones, such as Amastuola Primitivo Puglia Organic Wine 2014 (89 points, $12).
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 35-40 minutes
Total time: 40-45 minutes
Approximate food costs: $20
1. Set a large pot of water on the stovetop to boil.
2. In a large pan, warm olive oil with sliced red onion over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. The onion should grow soft and begin to caramelize. Add the minced garlic and anchovies and stir to coat in oil, cooking over the same heat for another 5 minutes.
3. Drain most of the water from the tomatoes and gently smash with a fork. Add them to the pan with a dash of chicken stock, raise the heat to medium-high and let cook for 10 minutes.
4. Add the olives and capers into the large saucepan with a dash of red pepper flakes, then add the pasta to the pot of boiling water at medium-high heat. Cook both for 10 minutes, stirring the sauce occasionally, so that the sauce and pasta finish cooking around the same time. (For a thicker consistency, cook the sauce an extra few minutes, smashing the olives if desired.) Taste sauce and add a dash of salt and pepper if needed. Drain the pasta, add it to the saucepan, stir gently and serve hot. Serves 4.