Penne alla vodka is an Italian-American cuisine classic with a hazy origin, but there’s no doubting its popularity. One reason for its delectability? The sauce.
Back in the 1980s, a young Iacopo Falai was introduced to penne alla vodka by his adventurous, travel-loving uncle. This blend of tomato, cream, and chili was unconventional, especially in Florence, Italy, where they resided. But for Falai’s uncle, the dish’s deliciousness was what truly mattered, not its origin.
Contrary to what some might believe, penne alla vodka is not an age-old Roman dish. It surged in popularity in the 1970s and ’80s. The dish’s origin remains a topic of debate, with claims ranging from Italy to the U.S. One early mention is found in the 1974 cookbook “L’Abbuffone”, where actor Ugo Tognazzi shares a recipe for “furious pasta,” essentially pasta all’arrabbiata but with Polish chili-vodka.
Vodka, when used in cooking, notably penne alla vodka, plays a significant role in elevating the dish’s flavor. While wine is commonly used to deglaze pans, vodka’s composition—mainly water and ethanol—makes it adept at enhancing the aromatic compounds in tomatoes. Thus, vodka intensifies both the aroma and taste of the sauce. Furthermore, ethanol helps to distribute the fat more evenly in the sauce, resulting in a lustrous, creamy texture.
When cooking with vodka, it’s essential to note that, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture, even after cooking, some alcohol content remains.
In this rendition of the dish, ricotta cheese is suggested, inspired by the pappa al pomodoro from the now-shuttered Caffe Falai in Manhattan. Dollops of ricotta interspersed through the meal provide a cooling break from the rich, savory sauce.
Vodka sauce, for Falai, became a culinary touchstone. Even now, as the culinary director for SA Hospitality Group, he continues to craft his version of penne alla vodka. And for him, the vodka isn’t just an ingredient—it introduces a delightful “lightness of acidity.” Whether it’s an authentic Italian ingredient or not, what matters most is its deliciousness.
Ricotta Pasta Alla Vodka Recipe
Total time: 30 minutes
Servings: 4 to 6
- Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4 slices thick-cut bacon, coarsely chopped
- 1½ teaspoons red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 4 large garlic cloves, crushed but whole
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 5 tablespoons tomato paste (double-concentrated preferred)
- ¾ to 1 cup vodka
- 1 pound fusilli/penne/rigatoni
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 4 ounces pecorino Romano or Parmesan, finely grated
- 1 cup whole-milk ricotta
- Chopped flat-leaf parsley or basil, for garnish
- Start by boiling salted water in a large pot.
- In a skillet, cook bacon until crispy, then drain, leaving 3 tablespoons of fat.
- Stir in red pepper flakes, oregano, garlic, and onion. Season and cook until onion becomes translucent.
- Add tomato paste and cook until its color darkens slightly. Turn off the heat and mix in vodka.
- Cook pasta in the boiling water until almost al dente.
- On high heat, reduce the vodka mixture by three-quarters. Add cream and simmer briefly.
- Drain pasta, reserving 2 cups of water, and add to the vodka sauce with pecorino and pasta water. Cook until sauce becomes glossy and coats the pasta.
- Remove the garlic cloves, season the dish, and serve with a sprinkle of pecorino, dollops of ricotta, and a garnish of parsley or basil.
Enjoy this rich and creamy ricotta pasta alla vodka!