What makes penne alla vodka so delicious? It’s all in the sauce.
By Eric Kim
In the 1980s, long before he became a New York chef, a young Iacopo Falai lived across the hall from a hip uncle who sometimes made penne alla vodka for dinner. The combination of tomato, cream and chile wasn’t traditional by any means, especially in Florence, Italy, where he lived, but his uncle was a travel-loving caterer who introduced Falai to a world of foods.
He had a particular point, Falai said: It doesn’t matter where a dish is made, as long as it’s delicious.
Some might assume that penne alla vodka is an ancient Roman pasta, but it gained popularity only in the 1970s and ’80s. The documentary “Disco Sauce: The Unbelievable True Story of Penne Alla Vodka” explores the dish’s many origin stories, from Italy to the United States, but none are definitive.
One of the first written accounts of vodka in creamy tomato pasta comes from the 1974 cookbook and memoir “L’Abbuffone” (later translated to English as “The Injester”). In it, Italian actor Ugo Tognazzi has a recipe for pasta all’infuriata, “furious pasta,” essentially a pasta all’arrabbiata with a splash of Polish chile-vodka.
In cooking, especially in penne alla vodka, deglazing a pan with liquor has many powers. Wine works, too, but a clean-tasting vodka has mostly water and ethanol (a solvent), which is excellent at carrying aromatic compounds — like those in tomatoes. In other words, the vodka in this dish can help you smell, and in turn taste, the sauce’s flavors in a heightened way.
According to the Journal of Food Science, the ethanol also helps more evenly disperse the fat, keeping the emulsified sauce bound, glossy and creamy.
So if you wish to taste the full impact of pork fat, red-pepper flakes and brick-red tomato paste blushed with cream, add a little vodka to your sauce (or a lot, as this recipe calls for). It’ll help you taste everything even more. But remember: Even vodka that has been cooked down, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, retains some of its alcohol content after as long as an hour.
In this recipe, the ricotta serving suggestion is inspired by the pappa al pomodoro, a bread-thickened tomato soup, at the now closed Caffe Falai in Manhattan. There, dollops of ricotta lent coolness both in temperature and in flavor — relief between bites of bold savoriness.
Vodka sauce became a source of comfort for Falai, even years later as the culinary director for SA Hospitality Group (Casa Lever, Sant Ambroeus, Felice). Recently in Milan, Falai made his own take on penne alla vodka for his staff.
The vodka in that sauce lent a “lightness of acidity,” Falai said. It might not be an Italian ingredient, but at least it’s delicious.
Ricotta pasta alla vodka
In a 1974 cookbook, Italian actor Ugo Tognazzi published a recipe for pasta all’infuriata, “furious pasta,” a chile-vodka-spiked tomato number. It’s one of the first written accounts of vodka in pasta. The alcohol is said to help fat disperse more evenly, keeping the sauce emulsion glossy and creamy, and to help you smell, and in turn taste, the sauce’s flavors in a heightened way. The ricotta serving suggestion draws inspiration from the creamy tomato soup with three dollops of cool, sweet ricotta on top from the now-closed Caffe Falai in Manhattan. The ricotta lends coolness both in temperature and in flavor, offering relief between bites of spicy booziness.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 slices thick-cut bacon (6 ounces), coarsely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons red-pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
4 large garlic cloves, crushed but left whole
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
5 tablespoons tomato paste, preferably double-concentrated
3/4 to 1 cup vodka, depending on how boozy you want it
1 pound fusilli, penne or rigatoni
1 cup heavy cream
4 ounces Pecorino Romano or Parmesan, finely grated (1 cup)
1 cup/8 ounces whole-milk ricotta
Finely chopped flat-leaf parsley or basil, for serving
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
2. Heat a large, high-sided skillet over medium-high. Add the oil and bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until the bacon is crispy at the edges, about 5 minutes. Carefully drain all but 3 tablespoons of the fat, reserving any excess for later.
3. Lower the heat to medium. Stir in the red-pepper flakes, oregano and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, just a few seconds. Add the onion, season generously with salt and pepper and cook over medium-high, stirring, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add more bacon fat if the pan dries out. Add the tomato paste and stir constantly until slightly darker in color, about 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the vodka.
4. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook according to package instructions until 2 minutes shy of al dente.
5. While the pasta cooks, turn the heat under the sauce to high and cook, stirring constantly, until reduced by three-quarters, about 2 minutes. Add the cream and bring to a simmer. Take off the heat.
6. Reserve 2 cups of the pasta water. Drain the pasta and add to the pan with the sauce, along with 1 cup pasta water and most of the pecorino. Cook over medium-high, stirring vigorously with one hand while moving the pan back and forth with the other, until the sauce glossily drapes the noodles, 5 to 7 minutes. Add more pasta water if the sauce looks dry. Fish out the garlic cloves. Taste and season with more salt and pepper, as desired.
7. Divide the pasta among plates, sprinkling with any remaining pecorino and dolloping each serving with three spoonfuls of ricotta. Top with the parsley, which adds necessary freshness to counter the richness.