Penne Pasta in Vodka Sauce is a creamy, rich and flavorful dish that cooks up in less than half an hour. Served with garlic bread and a glass of wine, it's sure to impress your guests!
I have turned again to the handmade family cookbook of my Italian-American friend, Mary Ann. She's a Rochester, New York native who compiled longtime family recipes in a charming three ring binder with a photo of her mom on the front. Her son Joel happens to be my neighbor, and he generously allowed me to raid the amazing recipes, of which this is one. He remembers this being a favorite dish that his uncle made for the family.
Penne Pasta in Vodka Sauce - Italian? Or Italian-American?
Both Italy and America lay claim to the origin of this dish. The evidence seems to suggest that it was on the menu at Dante, a restaurant in Bologna, Italy in the early 1970's and was popularized in the U.S. after that. Regardless of its origins, this is one fun dish to make and eat -- it's made with one full cup of vodka! We loved adding alcohol to our food in mid-century, didn't we? Don't worry if you don't like vodka, though. It blends in with the other flavors so you can't actually taste the vodka itself.
A Few Recipe Modifications
When I made this pasta dish, I did make a few modifications. Mary Ann's version calls for half and half, which would cut down on the fat and calories. However, if I'm making a pasta dish like this, I'd rather have the extra richness and thickness of heavy cream, so that's what I used. However, half and half is certainly an option.
I also added in ¼ cup of chopped Italian flat leaf parsley for extra fresh flavor. Speaking of extra flavor, many vodka sauce recipes call for pancetta. I did not add it this time, but I included it as an option on the recipe card. Kevin does prefer the version with pancetta, while I prefer the vegetarian option. You could also use bacon or shrimp in place of the pancetta.
This recipe is made with crushed tomatoes, which gives the tomato sauce a bit of texture. In previous family recipes Mary Ann has recommended San Marzano tomatoes from San Marzano sul Sarno, Italy, so I used those in this recipe. If you prefer a smooth sauce without the texture of crushed tomatoes, you will get the same excellent flavor if you use the same sized can of San Marzano tomato sauce.
Prepare Your Ingredients
Here's what you'll have to have on hand to make penne alla vodka:
- penne pasta
- red pepper flakes
- crushed tomatoes
- Italian parsley
- heavy cream
- grated parmesan cheese
- optional: pancetta, bacon or shrimp
There is Some Alcohol In The Finished Meal
It's important to note that this dish does not cook for very long, so all of the alcohol does not cook out of it. According to the USDA, after 15 minutes of simmering, roughly 60% of the alcohol is cooked off. It takes a full 3 hours of simmering to completely cook off the alcohol content in a sauce. Considering that it is being served diluted and with a heavy pasta, you are not likely to feel any affects from the alcohol. However, if you are avoiding alcohol for any reason or debating whether to serve it to children, this is something you should keep in mind.
Other Italian Recipes to Try
If you love authentic Italian food, try some of the other old family recipes that my friend Mary Ann has shared, including authentic Italian meatballs, authentic Italian Sunday sauce, and authentic Italian lasagna.
Let's make some penne pasta in vodka sauce!
Penne Pasta in Vodka Sauce, aka Penne Alla Vodka
- 1 pound penne pasta
- 6 tablespoons butter
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 cup vodka
- 28 ounce San Marzano crushed tomatoes
- ¼ cup chopped Italian parsley
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- 8 ounces diced pancetta optional
- In a deep skillet, melt butter. Add garlic and red pepper flakes. If you're using pancetta, you should add it now, too. Saute for 2-3 minutes.
- Add vodka to skillet and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Stir in crushed tomatoes and chopped parsley, and simmer for another 5 minutes.
- Mix in heavy cream and salt. Simmer on low heat for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
- While the sauce is simmering, cook pasta to al dente, drain and set aside.
- Add parmesan cheese and pepper to the sauce, mix well. Serve over pasta.