Puttanesca has been my all-time favorite pasta sauce since I tasted it for the first time as a teenager. (I believe it was at Avellino's in Fairfield, CT.) I've tried several variations over the years, and this one is truest to the flavor and texture I remember from that first time. I realize that my approach is a little unorthodox--most puttanesca recipes call for the anchovies, garlic, and red pepper flakes to be sauteed in oil at the start of cooking. I prefer to start with a base of hot pepper, oregano, and capers, then add garlic. The aroma is absolutely intoxicating. The anchovy fillets, meanwhile, are mashed to a paste, whipped with softened butter, and added toward the end of cooking, right before tossing the sauce with pasta. As for the pasta itself, I use spaghetti (it all comes back to that memory), but other shapes, like penne, are just fine. The recipe calls for a pound, but you can get away with half a pound if you like your pasta really saucy. —Chris Hagan
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a rolling boil. Whip anchovy paste with softened butter and set aside.
Heat olive oil in a skillet or saute pan over medium-low. When the oil shimmers, add pepper flakes and oregano. When they begin to sizzle, add capers and a splash of caper brine. (A cover or splatter screen might come in handy here.) Saute for a couple of minutes, delighting in the heady aroma of fried capers now filling your kitchen/apartment/household. Add garlic and a pinch of salt, stir well, and continue to saute, stirring to make sure the garlic doesn't burn, until golden and soft, a couple of minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and olives, reduce to a simmer, and cover partially. Simmer about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Begin cooking the pasta once you have added the tomatoes and olives to the sauce. Cook until just al dente, 8 or 9 minutes. When the pasta has about 3 minutes left, stir the anchovy-butter mixture into the sauce and continue to simmer. Drain pasta, reserving 1/2-1 cup cooking water. Toss pasta with sauce and a little of the water. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and basil, if using.