I first had Penne alla Vodka in a restaurant called Lasagna on Second Avenue in New York City. They made it with rigatoni instead of penne and they added hot Italian sausage. I was a vegetarian at the time so I always asked them to leave out the sausage, although the sauce is also made with pancetta for a little added flavor. I wasn’t a very strict vegetarian as you can tell. I’m more of a Flexitarian.
Now that I make Penne alla Vodka for my family at home, I omit the sausage, and they don’t even miss it. If you want to add it, it’s up to you. I would slice it into coins, cook it separately in a frying pan, and then stir it in at the end.
This sauce should come with a warning in restaurants because it can be made very hot. The heat comes from the amount of red pepper flakes you use. I start by infusing the vodka with red pepper flakes and leaving it to sit for about an hour. I then strain out those flakes and use the vodka, which by this time has turned a reddish brown color. I then add some fresh red pepper flakes later in the cooking process. You may want to taste the sauce before adding more red pepper to see how hot it is. You control the heat by controlling the amount of red pepper used.
The addition of heavy cream turns this into a beautiful blush sauce. It’s so good when served with crusty Italian bread to mop up all the juices. Penne alla Vodka goes very well with a dry Italian red wine — so do most things in life for that matter.
I like to serve Penne alla Vodka with a big green salad to counteract the heat. I guarantee this pasta dish will become a favorite in your house. Let me know if you try it. Buon appetito!
Penna alla Vodka
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1/4 cup vodka
- 1 16-ounce box of penne
- 4 ounces pancetta cut into small cubes
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 small onion diced
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (or to taste)
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 cup parmesan or romano cheese
- 3-4 fresh basil leaves optional
- Place 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes in a glass bowl with vodka. Allow to soak for at least an hour. The vodka will turn a reddish color. Strain out the red pepper flakes and discard. Keep the vodka.
- Put a large pot of water on to boil for the pasta. When boiling, add a generous amount of salt, add penne, and stir. Cook according to package instructions for al dente. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid for later.
- While the pasta is cooking, we will prepare the sauce. Add olive oil and pancetta to a large skillet or braiser. Allow to cook for 3-5 minutes over medium heat, until it starts to brown.
- Add onions and garlic and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly until they start to soften.
- Add the vodka and cook for 3 minutes to allow the alcohol to burn off.
- Add canned tomatoes with their juices. Using a potato masher, or a fork or spoon, crush the tomatoes, leaving them chunky.
- Add salt, pepper, oregano, and red pepper flakes to taste. The more red pepper flakes you add, the hotter the sauce will be. It will already be hot from the pepper-infused vodka, so you may want to taste the sauce for hotness before adding more red pepper flakes.
- When the pasta is cooked. Add the heavy cream to the tomato sauce and stir well. You should get a blush sauce. You can adjust the amount cream to your liking. Add the penne and toss to combine.
- Add the cheese and basil, and toss to combine throughly. Add a little of the reserved cooking water to help everything blend together. You may not need the whole amount. Add a little at a time until you get the desired consistency. Allow the pasta to cook in the sauce for 2-3 minutes before serving.