Penne alla Vodka; Old School Revival

by formerchef on March 7, 2015

I wanted to hate this dish because, basically, I must be a food snob. That’s the only reason I could think of when I asked myself why I didn’t want to make this recipe. There’s the vodka thing (I don’t really like it) but that wasn’t the real reason. It had to be something else…

My first thought when I was asked to include a recipe for Penne alla Vodka for an article I was writing was a horrified, “OMG, that’s so 80’s!” I have memories of every LA “trattoria” in the late 80’s with this dish on the menu in one version or another (some with peas, some with smoked salmon). I had flashbacks to a time when I had big hair, baggy pants, and very red lipstick. I so very much did not want to do it that I only worked out the recipe and didn’t take photos, envisioning a gloppy pink sauced pasta.

But you know what? It was delicious. And subtle, when made with care. When done right, and not in a hurry by a hung-over underpaid line cook, this pasta tastes nothing of vodka, just a creamy tomato sauce with a pinch of heat. Yes, it’s pink. Yes, it has vodka. But the purpose of the vodka is to bring out the flavor in the tomatoes, much like wine does. Alcohol dissolves fats and releases their flavors and for this reason vodka in the sauce recipe enhances the tomato via the cream.

So no, there’s no photo to entice you to make the dish. But if you have fond memories of this dish, or just want to try something old school, I encourage you to give it a chance.

Let me know what you think. Were you a fan of Penne alla Vodka back in the day? Do you still order it when you see it on a menu?

Penne alla Vodka

Yield: serves 4


  • 1 pound penne pasta, cooked al dente
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups tomato sauce
  • 3 fluid ounces vodka
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • grated parmesan or pecorino cheese for garnish


  1. Cook the pasta until it is al dente and reserve.
  2. In a large sauté pan or sauce pot, melt the butter over medium heat and then add the finely chopped onion. Sauté the onion until it is soft, about 5 minutes.
  3. Once the onions are soft, but not colored, add the minced garlic and cook for another 2 minutes.
  4. Add the tomato sauce, vodka, and crushed red pepper flakes and bring to a low simmer. Cook for about 10 minutes, allowing the sauce to slightly reduce and the alcohol flavor to mellow.
  5. Stir in the cream and the salt bring back to a very low simmer. Do not allow the sauce to boil or the cream and tomato could separate.
  6. Check the seasoning and adjust as needed.
  7. Combine the sauce with the cooked pasta. Serve with grated parmesan or pecorino cheese.



If you’d like to add chicken to make this a heartier main course meal, after sautéing the onion add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the pan with 1 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breast cut into 2” chunks. Cook until the chicken begins to brown and then proceed in the recipe with adding the garlic and then the tomato sauce, etc.

1 Myra March 7, 2015 at 7:28 am

One of my kids will only eat a tomato sauce over pasta if that sauce is “alla vodka” (my guess is the creaminess balances out the acid of the tomato.) I’ll have to try this, since my sauce normally comes from a (gasp!) jar.

2 formerchef March 7, 2015 at 12:07 pm

Myra, you could always leave out the vodka for the kids, if that matters.

3 Susan De Masi March 7, 2015 at 9:19 am

I love this dish. I used to order it in a restaurant that was supposed to be Tex-Mex, don’t know how it got on the menu. And if you have a couple of shots of vodka before you eat, the pink color doesn’t matter at all!

4 formerchef March 7, 2015 at 12:07 pm

And if you have a couple of shots of vodka before you eat, the pink color doesn’t matter at all!
Susan, that is hilarious!

5 Kathie Roe March 7, 2015 at 10:17 pm

Maybe, I’m the only one who has never heard of this dish. 🙂 But it sure does sound like something I would like to try. Long story short…I dislike chicken, but I would even like to try Penne alla Vodka with the chicken! Just in case I change my mind about the chicken, is there another meat that would blend and not compromise the flavor? I love reading your blog and have even tried a few of your recipes. How about a great recipe for Halibut? 🙂 Thanks for all your work, just keep it up.

6 formerchef March 8, 2015 at 5:39 am

Kathie-How about shrimp? Or just make it plain, and serve it as a side or appetizer in a smaller portion.
As for halibut, I’ll try to do something new when it comes back into season. In the meantime, have you seen this dish?

7 Lucy March 8, 2015 at 3:06 pm

I never had this dish until a few years ago. We were eating at an old school Italian restaurant in NYC where the waiter recommended it. It was wonderful, but I forgot about it till this post.

It’s good timing as a friend gave me a couple dozen bottles (airline size) of Skyy Vodka recently. If I like it, I’m prepared to make lots!

8 formerchef March 8, 2015 at 3:07 pm

Lucy-The airline bottles are perfect!

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