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?
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.
Once the onions are soft, but not colored, add the minced garlic and cook for another 2 minutes.
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.
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.
Check the seasoning and adjust as needed.
Combine the sauce with the cooked pasta. Serve with grated parmesan or pecorino cheese.
Option: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.