A spicy pasta dish from the 1980s
Back in the day, Penne alla Vodka was the “It” dish at the sort of Italian restaurant where they helped you with your napkin. You know the kind I mean—just a little bit snootier than necessary.
Penne (or Pasta) alla Vodka became so popular that it soon moved to the more down-market trattoria, where it was a menu staple for years. Then it seemed to disappear.
Well, good news! Lately I’ve spotted it again on some restaurant menus. And I even ordered it (for the first time in probably 20 years). I had forgotten how great this dish could be—so of course I’ve been inspired to make it at home again.
You can too—and get a taste of the 80s.
Recipe: Penne alla Vodka
It’s not clear where this dish originated—though Wikipedia offers a nice summary of various theories. I do know from firsthand experience that it became wildly popular in the 80s. (Yes, I’m ancient.)
Penne (preferably with ridges) has long been synonymous with this dish, but you can use whatever pasta shape you prefer. Do select one with a somewhat rough surface (to catch the flavorful sauce).
I used to make this dish years ago, but have forgotten (and seem to have lost) whatever recipe I used. Fortunately, most of the recipes are pretty similar. I adapted the one in this post from Lydia Bastianich’s Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen. Her version includes garlic (though many don’t, and the original recipe probably didn’t). I like garlic, so I approve. And now that this recipe is on the blog, I’ll never lose it again!
Prep time for this dish is just a few minutes, and cooking the sauce takes about 10 to 15 minutes. The pasta can cook at the same time the sauce is simmering. So figure half an hour max from the time you put the pasta water on to boil to the time you’re sitting down to dinner. Maybe a bit more if you want to cook the sauce longer.
This dish serves 4 to 6, and leftovers keep in the refrigerator for a few days if stored in an airtight container.
When making this dish for just Mrs. Kitchen Riffs and myself, I often cook up only half a batch of pasta and freeze half the sauce (which keeps well in the freezer for several months).
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (may substitute pure olive oil)
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste; start with half this amount if spicy isn’t your thing)
- 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes (see Notes for substitutions)
- 1 tablespoon Kosher salt for salting pasta water (if you substitute table salt, use about half that amount)
- 1 pound penne pasta, preferably ridged (or another pasta of your choice; see Headnote)
- ¼ cup vodka
- ½ cup heavy cream
- salt to taste (and you really do need to taste; you may not need any)
- 2 tablespoons additional extra-virgin olive oil or unsalted butter (to finish the sauce; optional)
- 1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated (about 1 cup; you may want to grate more if you want some for garnish)
- ~3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley for garnish
- additional grated Parmesan cheese for garnish
- Place a large (4-quart) pot filled with water on the stovetop to boil (see Notes).
- Put a large skillet or medium saucepan on the stovetop on medium heat (you’ll be using this to make the sauce).
- Meanwhile, peel and mince the garlic (or slice it thinly).
- Once the skillet heats, add the extra-virgin olive oil. When the oil is hot (it’ll shimmer; maybe 15 seconds or so), add the garlic.
- Sauté the garlic until it just begins to brown, about 2 minutes. Then add the red pepper flakes and cook for 10 to 15 seconds (to help spread the pepper flavor throughout the olive oil).
- Add the canned tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Set a timer for 8 minutes.
- The water should be boiling about now. Add a tablespoon of salt to season the water. Then add the pasta and set a second timer for 7 minutes. Begin testing the pasta when this timer goes off. It usually takes me 7 or 8 minutes to cook dried penne to the al dente stage, depending on the brand. Once the pasta reaches the state of doneness you like (it may take another minute or two), remove it from the stove and drain.
- About two minutes before the pasta sauce is done (i.e., when the 8-minute timer goes off), add the vodka and heavy cream. Taste and season with salt if necessary. If finishing with 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil or butter, add now. If the sauce is chunkier than you like, you can use an immersion blender to liquify it a bit.
- Grate the Parmesan cheese.
- About two minutes after you’ve added the cream and vodka to the pasta sauce, you’ll need to combine the pasta and sauce. Add the drained pasta to the skillet—if the skillet is large enough. If not, return the drained pasta to its (now empty) cooking pot and dump the pasta sauce in with it. In either case, stir to combine the pasta and sauce, and cook for about a minute, stirring (or tossing) to make sure the sauce nicely coats the pasta.
- Remove the pasta from the heat, add the grated Parmesan cheese, and toss quickly to incorporate. Dish up, and garnish with chopped parsley and/or additional Parmesan cheese.
- You may prefer to use whole canned tomatoes rather than diced ones. In that case, break them up in a blender or food processor before using. Don’t over blend—you want a slightly chunky texture.
- If you prefer a sauce that’s more “cooked” than this recipe calls for, simply keep it on the stove longer (up to half an hour). In that case, of course, you’ll also need to adjust the timing on your pasta water.
- If you don't have Kosher salt on hand, you can use plain table salt (though I’d reduce the amount by about half since table salt is finer and more “condensed” than Kosher).
- I don’t think this dish needs black pepper, but add some at table if you like.
- Most of the alcohol in the vodka evaporates when you cook this sauce, although trace amounts can remain. Not much, but you might want to serve the kids something else if you’re concerned about this.
Pasta Lovers on a Roll
“Wow, this dish is a stroll down memory lane,” I said, forking a bite of Penne alla Vodka
“Yeah, good times,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “So I’m adding this link to another great treat from the 1980s, for readers who might be feeling nostalgic.” [And for those who find it confusing, Wikipedia is your friend.]
“What link?” I asked.
“Oh, just something I had to include,” said Mrs K R. “Cause I’m never gonna let you down.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said.
“This pasta is sooo delish,” she said. “You’re a wonderful cook. I wouldn’t get this from any other guy.”
“Well, gosh,” I said. “But maybe I should check that link to make sure it’s correct.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Mrs K R. “You know you can count on me. I’m never gonna make you cry!”
Yeah, true. No need to worry.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Pasta with Tomato and Bacon Sauce
Pasta Cacio e Pepe
Pasta with Shrimp and Fennel
Pasta alla Norma
Pasta with Sardines and Fennel
Or check out the index for more
Your Penne alla Vodka is beautiful! I love vodka sauce for my pasta. Definitely love how quick and easy it is to prepare.
I started my blog is 2008 simply because I was tired of losing recipes. Of course it's developed into a living child that takes almost all of my free time. Maybe I should have used recipe cards instead. GREG
Hi Amy, isn't this a good dish? I won't forget this one again! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Greg, I started my blog in part to assembly and save recipes, too. And it does take a lot of time! Loads of fun, though. Thanks for the comment.
Isn't it nice to have recipes when you can find them now?! I must look up my own recipes more than my readers! I was a teen in the 80's and I don't remember this pasta dish, but then again, I was in England and I didn't frequent many Italian establishments there. Though, like you said, I've seen it on many restaurant menus here. Of course, because of the alcohol I haven't ordered it! I'm sure the vodka adds a nice subtle flavour, but I love everything else in the pasta. Tomato cream sauces are the best. Yours looks great John, and I'm glad you have it saved now :)
Alas, when did the 80s become vintage and retro? I love this sauce. Thanks for a reminder of a great pasta dish.
Hi John , another great dish , love the ingredients , the vodka kicks up the flavor , this dish will be on my table in the very near future . Thanks for sharing :)
Hi Nazneen, the blog really has become so convenient for recipe storage! I use my index all the time too. I think this dish is more an Italian-American thing (although I've seen reports it was made in Italy, too), so I'm not surprised you didn't see it in England. You could probably make this dish without the vodka, but it'd lose a little something, alas. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Debra, time has a way to getting away from us, doesn't it? But the 80s have become so, well, yesterday. :-( Anyway, happy to remind you of this dish! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Nee, this dish really is good - I had forgotten how wonderful it could be. Definitely worth making. Thanks for the comment.
Always a great recipe that everyone should have in their repertoire! And as for that video? What was with that bartender? Loved the short shorts! And I love this recipe! Thanks, Mrs. KR!
I love penne alla vodka! I used to have it in the late 90s tho. I guess that's retro too now! :) Haven't thought about the dish lately, but thanks to your reminder, that will have to change. Great recipe John! Hope you're having a lovely weekend!
That's one of the few things I actually still like from the '80s! LOL OK, maybe some of the music, too. ;)
Thank you John!!! I have a box of penne in the pantry that I keep passing up on because it's just not right for the sauce at the time. Last time we made pasta, I passed it up again and told Bobby that I had to come up with something for the penne. Well, here it is! I do remember this recipe and in the same way you do. There was a great little Italian place that we use to go to back in the 80's that made a wonderful Penne alla Vodka. Unfortunately, it closed in the earlier nineties and I haven't had it since. Now I can make it at home!! Thanks so much!
If you're ancient John, then I am surely decrepit because not only do I remember this delicious recipe, I've also been "rickrolled" thanks to Mrs. K.R:)
I'm so glad you are "bringing" this dish to the Pasta Party, John. It really is an unforgettable experience from the eighties. Right up there with Spago and Wolfgang Puck:)
I'm delighted that it will be in the Pasta Party Round-up so none of us ever lose it again! Thank you so much for sharing John and thanks for joining in.
John, I've never heard of this before, it sounds fresh and delicious.... thanks for sharing.
I think this recipe was one of the first ones I dared to order, it seemed so exotic having vodka in it. Many recipes and blogs later, I'm still very fond of this dish! Beautiful photos as always!
This remains a classic dish of our generation. Your dish looks divine.
Hi Abbe, Mrs K R was really giggling when she insisted we add that video link. ;-) And isn't this recipe great? This one is going to be a regular at our house. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Gomo, it's a great dish, isn't it? I'm so happy to have rediscovered it - it's wonderful! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Carolyn, there was some really good music in the 80s. ;-) And this dish, of course! Thanks for the comment.
Hi MJ, glad I found a use for your penne! And isn't this dish nice? So nice to have it again. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Loiuise, you have to watch out for Mrs K R! And I'm happy to "bring" this to the Pasta Party - it's going to be tons of fun. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Lizzy, I think this dish may be mainly a US thing. And it's not all that common these days, alas. It should be - it's good. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Velva, this really is a classic, isn't it? Really such a great dish. Thanks for your comment.
Hi Barbara, isn't this such a great dish? I can't believe I had virtually forgotten about it until I saw it on a restaurant menu last year! Thanks for the comment.
Well done, again!! I've never made this although have had it in restaurants before. Yours looks terrific!! Great post.
Hi Dan, this is an extremely easy dish to make, and the payoff is super - great flavor! Definitely worth trying. Thanks for the comment.
I feel like I'm crawling out from under a rock because I've never heard of this pasta before - I've never seen it on any menu! I've had pasta with wine but never with vodka. I'd like to try this! I love how it contains ingredients that are easy to source and how the sauce doesn't take long to prepare - perfect for mid-week xx
Loved the photos and recipe as usual, looks delicious! Especially enjoyed Mrs. Kitchen Riffs link! Very funny!
Hi Charlie, I think this dish must be largely a US thing. Really worth trying though - it has great flavor, and it's one of those dishes that you can play with until it tickles your taste buds. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Little Sister, that Mrs KR is a card, isn't she? ;-) Thanks for the comment.
This is one of the reasons we keep heavy cream in our fridge. My older sister introduced this to me years ago, and it quickly became a favorite. I'll have to try your version soon, my friend!
I can handle World Pasta Day, but I think it should be on the calendar a few more days. I don't think this dish should have disappeared it's still a winner. I like freezing sauce too, great to have on hand. Hope you and the Mrs. had a great weekend.
What a great dish! I have never tried a vodka sauce before, but have always wanted to. Now I have this great recipe to try!
Hi Monet, isn't this an awesome dish? Quick and easy to make, and super flavor. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Gina, I think we all need to bring back this dish! It really is a winner. We make large batches of sauce and freeze them all the time - great for a quick dinner. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Kristi, you definitely need to try this! This is so quick to make and so flavorful. With your crazy work hours lately, this is just what you need to an almost instant dinner. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
I have never seen this recipe in Italy but it might be particular to one region. Or, of course, it could just be someone being inventive and creating something pretty smashing. Sounds good to me to spice up a pasta dish a little. I was in Italy in the 80s so missed out on it that time round. I am ancient too.
I can see how would this work out as I tried using liquor with pasta before, I did mine with tequila. Yours looks so good!
Isn't this a fantastic dish, John? Yes, it's been around for a while but the fact that it survives says a great deal. Love the serving with the cheese garnish. Either add a lot or don't bother! Your recipe is quite similar to mine, so, I think I'll put off posting the recipe for a spell. :)
I am pretty sure that I have come across this somewhere online, but I have never tasted penne alla vodka. As you know John, we are big pasta eaters in Goa and I can't wait to try your recipe. Thanks for sharing!
LOVE Lidia Bastianich! She's adorable, and her recipes are always stellar. I've never made vodka sauce before on my own (i've just indulged in it when out to eat), but i should try it. this looks wonderful.
That penne looks so good. This was a pasta week for me too. John doesn't like it so that leaves it all to me and that's just fine.
Will be patiently waiting!
First, I adore Lidia! Her restaurant in Kansas City is one of my all-time favorites!
Second, thanks for this recipe! I've eaten penne alla vodka many, many times, but I've just never made it myself. I think I need to now!
Hi Suzanne, although some say this dish was invented in Italy, I think it's more likely an American deal. But it's really a good dish - worth trying sometime. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Raymund, tequila would be an interest choice. Pasta ole! ;-) thanks for the comment.
Hi John, I love this dish. And I agree loads of cheese is necessary (I actually add more at table than I did for the pictures). I didn't know you were thinking about posting this recipe - another case of great minds! ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Helene, this is a good dish, and by Goan standards not spicy at all! Definitely worth a try. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Shannon, Lidia is a great cook (and author), isn't she? I love her stuff. And this dish really is great. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Maureen, pasta is such good stuff! I could live on it. ;-) Mrs K R most definitely does like pasta, so there's never any left! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Cquek, :-D Thanks for the comment.
Hi Kimberely, we've never been to Lidia's restaurant in KC. We lived there ages ago (late 70s, early 80s) but I don't think it was around at that time. Love to go sometime - sounds like a roadtrip! And this is such a simple dish, it's definitely worth making at home. Plus you get to spice it up exactly the way you want. Thanks for the comment.
This brings back good memories! When I was pregnant with my son I had massive cravings for this dish and Fettucine Alfredo. Haven't had it since but man, it was so good!
This is one of my all time favorite things to eat! I've never made it at home, though...sadly!
Maybe St. Louis is stepping up to its A-game faster than us over here, because I haven't seen this pop up on our menus yet...but never fear! This DOES look like an awesome menu addition for an evening potluck :) cheers!
This is my husbands favorite dish of all time! I'll be trying your recipe on him very soon. Sounds dleiicous.
This dish looks so good and quite a beautiful combinations although I've never used vodka to make my sauce. I can imagine how good this must taste. Love how simple it looks.
Hi Alyssa, happy to bring back good memories! It really is a great dish. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Ashley, this is so easy to make at home! Well worth it, IMO. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Ala, I've only seen in on one menu in St. Louis, but that's all it takes, right? ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Kate, you'll make your husband very, very happy! It really is delish. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Asha, the vodka really is an interesting addition. A bit surprising because vodka has no real flavor on its own, but it's definitely doing something in this dish. Thanks for the comment.
The dish looks great! A big bowl of pasta always sounds good this time of year.
One of my favorite dishes of all time. This looks fabulous! Need to give your recipe a try for sure.
I absolutely love penne alla vodka! It's a once in a while treat that I cook and we practically lick the bowl clean! Such a wonderful, classic Italian dish. Thanks for sharing your recreation of a forgotten favorite, John!
I haven't had this dish in ages but always loved it. I've also never made it before. My family would love this even though I try to avoid cream in pasta I may just have to surprise them with this one day soon. Thanks for sharing this recipe.
This is one of my daughter's favorite dishes, so we have it on the menu quite often. You prepared it exactly how we like it. Great tip on freezing some of the extra sauce :)
Hi Laura, I'll take a bowl of pasta any time! One of my favorite foods. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Asmita, isn't this nice? It's a terrific dish. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Georgia, don't you just love this dish? I'm all for licking the bowl clean, too! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Vicki, your family would love this surprise! Definitely a super dish - so tasty. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Liz, it's a wonderful dish, isn't it? A whole lot of flavor for not that many ingredients. Thanks for the comment.
Looks unbelievably good, it's one of my favorite things to order at an Italian restaurant. Love penne vodka.
I need to take a trip back to the 80s and bring this dish into our lives! It looks delicious.
Hi Honey, This really is a great dish - I can't believe I haven't made this for so long! But I'll be making it again soon. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
Hi Amy, always fun to revisit the 80s - they were a hoot! Thanks for the comment.
mmmm a fav pasta dish of mine yet I have never made it myself. Thanks for reminding me that I should finally attempt to make it!!
I love Vodka sauce in my pasta. The pasta looks terrific!!! Perfect for dinner!!
Ahhh, the 80's! Now let's bring back some dishes from the 50's and 60's (maybe Meat Loaf?) Thanks for the post- looks delicious!
Great dish, John! I'm old enough to remember this pasta from the 80s, too! I haven't had it in years and your version looks delicious. I need to drag out my bottle of Ketel one and make some. Great photos as well! Thanks for a great post!
Hi Natalie, this really is fun (and easy!) to make at home. Well worth doing! thanks for the comment.
Hi Shibi, this really make a great dinner - simple, yet flavorful. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Fran, dig around in the index and you can find classic tuna noodle casserole. ;-) This dish is much better! Thanks for the comment.
Hi Bill, it's funny how we forgot all about some dishes, isn't it? Glad to have found this one again! Thanks for the comment.
I can't believe I missed this dish in the 80's... I wonder how!!
I remember pumpkin soup and deep fried Camembert was everywhere in Australlia :0!
Love the recipe... I am curious, I will have to give it a go :)
I have to admit I have not heard of this dish before. The sauce for this pasta sounds wonderful. I can just imagine the flavor of it.
Hi Julie, I haven't thought of deep fried Camembert in years!) I've actually been toying with the idea of doing one of those late 70s, early 80s over-the-top pumpkin soups, but I don't know if my arteries can handle all that cream. ;-) I do have a great recipe for one.Thanks for the comment.
Hi Dawn, it's a really fun (and tasty!) dish, and well worth discovering. I think you'd like it. Thanks for the comment.
I remembered watching Lidia's shows when I was a kid...and I love Italian foods, too. After my visit in Rome, I realized that some dishes don't require dairy or cheese such as pizza, and they still taste amazing without them. I love Vodka sauce, so good with penne, too :)
Hi Miam, a lot of Italian-American dishes use way more meat, dairy, and cheese than their Italian counterparts. I like both! ;-) And this really is a great dish, isn't it? Thanks for the comment.
Anything spicy and with vodka has to be good! ;) Looks divine John!
I enjoyed reading your post. The pasta looks lovely and I will try it for my family soon. thanks for sharing :)
Hi Anne, I love spicy too! And the vodka really is a nice addition in this dish. Thanks for the comment.
Hi easyfoodsmith, isn't this a great looking pasta? Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for the comment.
This is pasta at it's best!
Just looking at the pictures and at the ingredients lst makes my mouth water!
Hi Daniela, this is such a satisfying dish! Hope you have a chance to make it. Thanks for the comment.
I love this dish and tried many many times at restaurants; however, I never tried it at home and here I am with your recipe! Today's swimming day and usually pasta night, so I'm going to try this! Still morning but I'm excited for dinner! ;)
Hi Nami, this is such a great dish, isn't it? I hope you have a great swim, and an even better dinner! Thanks for the comment.
I love everything about this dish.... Glad to follow you :)
Hi Sowmya, isn't this a great dish? We're having the rest of the sauce that I froze for leftovers tonight! Thanks for the comment.
Considering the amount of pasta I eat and the time vodka tomato sauce has remained in my bucket list, it's surprising that I never made it yet. Maybe I'll put some rick astley while cooking this! Love the 80's
Hi Paula, it was in my bucket list for years, and then I somehow managed to totally forget about it! It's definitely worth making. Thanks for the comment.
Need to get round to making this - its been on my 'wish I could list' for ever! I LOVE the way it looks.
Hi Kitchen Butterfly, I don't know what it took me so long to get to this either - it's a wonderful dish! Thanks for the comment.
So beautiful, John! Love pasta alls vodka -- although penne is not the Husband's fav at all. Don't ask me why!
Hi Kiran, if hubby likes the faralle (butterfly) shape, I think that'd be quite nice with this sauce. Thanks for the comment.
Never had cook pasta with vodka before, tempting to try!
Hi Dedy, the vodka does add a little something to this dish - really a nice flavor. Worth trying, IMO. Thanks for the comment.
Hi John, that's a gorgeous looking pasta. Interesting recipe, thanks for sharing. Nice click.
Have a great weekend.
Hi Amelia, isn't this nice? Such great flavor. Thanks for the comment.
Waaaaait a moment: vodka with pasta? (sorry: pasta with vodka? - my mind seems to only be able to think of vodka right now.. grrr) I can honestly say I had never thought of that and neither have I read about it before... The sauce must taste amazingly, from what I can picture from your recipe and the previous comments.
Hi Alex, it's a really great recipe! Totally delish. ;-) Thanks for the comment.
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