Penne alla vodka is a dish made from pasta (penne, unsurprisingly) and a sauce made from vodka, cream, crushed tomatoes, onions, and chilli. It’s often also made with an Italian ham like prosciutto or pancetta.
Origin of Penne alla Vodka
The origins of penne alla vodka are hotly debated. Some believe it’s a distinctly Italian–America dish, others say it originated in Italy itself, and then there are the cynics who believe it was invented by vodka manufacturers in order to shift more product.
Here’s what we do know: in 1974, Italian actor Ugo Tognazzi released a cookbook called L'Abbuffone that featured a recipe for pasta all'infuriata ('furious pasta'), which was essentially an arrabiata with vodka. This is probably the earliest reference to vodka being used in Italian cooking, although some people claim other examples already existed.
Around this time, evidence of vodka-infused Italian food seems to crop up on both sides of the Atlantic, including penne alla moscovita (penne in the Moscow style), made with smoked salmon, cream, and caviar. This became a popular dish in discotheques across the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy.
At some point in the early '80s, discotheques in the US began serving what we now recognise as penne alla vodka. Whether or not this came before or after the penne all moscovita is uncertain. The dish is simpler and more recognisably Italian, so certainly could have been created independently. But it was also during the Cold War, so could just as well have been created in opposition to the 'Moscow style'.
The Reason Why Tomato Sauce with Vodka Tastes so Good
Unlike wine, which we’re accustomed to being used in sauces, vodka is supposedly a flavourless alcohol. So does it really add anything to the taste of tomato sauce?
Alcohol molecules usually trap more volatile molecules in food, stopping them from releasing flavours. That means the more alcohol you add to a dish, and the stronger that alcohol is, the more it will overpower the natural flavours of the other ingredients.
But, crucially, by cooking most of the alcohol molecules off, you’re left with just small traces of alcohol that can actually stimulate the release of flavours previously hidden in other ingredients – in this case, tomatoes.
What that means is the addition of vodka to a tomato sauce creates a sharper, slightly more peppery element that cuts through the tomatoes’ natural sweetness. The balance of flavours is close to perfect.
Penne alla Vodka Recipe
Before we get started, a quick note on the tinned tomatoes: it’s up to you how chunky you want them. This dish is generally made with Roma or plum tomatoes crushed with side of a knife – in other words, pretty chunky – but you can also chop them up finer or blitz them in a food processor.
If you prefer a really smooth sauce, there’s nothing wrong with using a tin of passata instead, but we do think this works better in the more rustic style. It probably goes without saying that, however you prefer your tinned tomatoes prepared, you should also use the best quality available to you. (In fact, this goes for all the ingredients.)
Penne alla vodka also works well without the prosciutto/pancetta if you want to make it vegetarian.
Penne alla vodka ingredients
- 400g (28 oz) tinned plum tomatoes, crushed
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- ½ cup onion (minced or finely chopped)
- 85 g (3 oz) prosciutto or pancetta, diced (optional)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ½ cup vodka
- ¼ tsp red chilli flakes
- ⅔ cup double cream
- ¼ cup parmesan cheese, grated
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh oregano
- ¼ cup chopped fresh basil
- 14 oz penne (save ½ cup of the cooking water for sauce thinning)
- Extra parmesan cheese, shaved, and a sprig of fresh basil (for serving)
Penne alla vodka method
Bring a pot of water to boil for the pasta. Add a generous amount of salt.
In a separate pot (or deep skillet), heat the oil over a medium heat and the onion and prosciutto/pancetta (if using). Sauté for about 5 minutes, or until the onion starts to go translucent.
Add the garlic and chilli flakes and continue sautéing for a further minute or so.
Add the tomatoes and vodka, then season with the salt and pepper to taste (note that you will probably be thinning the sauce with the salty pasta water later, so err on the side of caution). Bring the sauce to a simmer and then reduce the heat. Stir occasionally for 15 minutes or until the scent of alcohol has cooked off.
As the sauce simmers, add your penne to the pot of boiling water and cook as per the instructions on the packet.
Stir the cream into the vodka and tomato sauce. Allow it to heath through for a minute or two and then stir in the parmesan and chopped herbs.
Drain the penne, ensuring that you save about half a cup of the cooking water first.
Add the drained penne to the sauce pot and toss it together until the pasta is well coated. If the sauce is a little to thick, add small amounts of the pasta cooking water you saved until it reaches the consistency you want.
Serve warm topped with shavings of parmesan and garnished with a sprig of fresh basil.