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.
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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