Penne Alla Vodka

So, in buying alcohol for our New Year’s party, I either overdid it or I didn’t overdo it in the right way. Meaning: we couldn’t have had enough Champagne or Prosecco (bottles disappeared in less time than it took to open new ones), but–for some reason–the two giant bottles of vodka I bought (in mirrored disco-ball packaging) went mostly unconsumed. Which meant, the next day–Thursday–after we cleaned up, I stood face-to-face with more vodka than I knew what to do with.

Actually, it didn’t take long to figure out what to do with it: as the saying goes, “When life throws you vodka, make Penne Alla Vodka.” I love Penne Alla Vodka. I once walked from the East Village to the West Village in 8 degree weather to get a bowl at Pepe Rosso. Their Penne Alla Vodka has pancetta in it, and may be one of the best and fastest foods to eat when you’re freezing and starving in the West Village. But now I was home, hungover, and eager to use up as much vodka as I could on a classic American-Italian staple. In terms of using up vodka, I didn’t do too well–it takes only 1/4 of a cup to make the recipe; but in terms of making dinner, I hit the ball out of the park.

The recipe comes from my favorite TV chef, Lydia Bastianich, who shares her recipe on Epicurious (click here). It’s easier than you might think; you just need a 35-oz can of Italian plum tomatoes, 1 pound penne, 10 cloves of peeled garlic, crushed red pepper, then the vodka (1/4 cup), heavy cream (1/2 cup), some chopped parsley and some grated Parmesan.

The key to the whole thing is timing. You get your big pot of water boiling first. Then, while it’s boiling, you add the tomatoes to the food processor and whir until they’re all broken up:


This was a step I wasn’t so sure about: was it really necessary? I’m always cautious about unnecessary steps, especially since we don’t have a dishwasher; would it be worth it to have to clean the food processor, just to pulverize the tomatoes?

The answer is: yes. Pulverizing the tomatoes makes the sauce smoother and, thereby, somehow more refined than your usual chunky tomato sauce. So do those extra dishes: it’s worth it.

Once your tomatoes are all blended, it’s basically just a quick juggling act at the stove.

When the water is boiling, salt it and add the penne. Now you have to act fast because that penne will be done in 8 to 10 minutes.

Heat a skillet, add olive oil to coat it (about 1/4 cup) and then drop in the 10 garlic cloves (which are still whole, but out of their skins.)


Saute them until they’re golden brown and then add the tomatoes. Be careful, it’ll sputter and spatter. Add salt and red pepper flakes to taste (I like it spicy) and boil for two minutes.

Then add the vodka, lower the heat and simmer until the pasta is ready. (You’ll know it’s ready because you should start tasting it when you’re not sure; you want it to be toothsome, so start tasting after 7 or 8 minutes.)

Finally, when the pasta’s just about ready, remove all the garlic cloves (it’s like a fun children’s game: fishing out garlic cloves from bubbling red sauce–ok, maybe not safe for kids), add the cream (it’ll turn the sauce an electric pink), and 2 Tbs butter or olive oil. Swirl all around (it creates a sort of emulsification, almost like a mayonnaise) and then add the pasta. Stir it all around and around on low heat (let the pasta suck up that sauce) and taste. Does it taste good? If not, add more salt, add more red pepper; this is the time to do it, not after you serve it.

When you’re happy with the seasoning, add chopped parsley and lots of grated Parmesan cheese. Stir round and round a few more times and you’re done: serve it up and suggest, to your audience, that penne alla vodka goes great with vodka straight from the bottle. Much like serving the same wine you used to cook that beef stew with the actual dinner, get a large paper bag, put the vodka in it and dress your guests like hobos as you serve them their meal. They’ll really appreciate it and you’ll use up your vodka in no time! Or just drink water and watch “The Muppet Show” on DVD, as we did. Either way, this is one way to use vodka that won’t give you a hangover.


31 thoughts on “Penne Alla Vodka”

  1. Yum! Love this stuff. We have a handle of vodka left over from NYE too…but we also had a LOT of cheese left over, so our post-new years meal was mac and cheese.

    An immersion blender would make the grinding step easier/cleaner…

  2. It seems incomprehensible to have left over vodka. Even more unbelieveable that there would be confusion as to how to quickly dispose of it! A martini would have been a good starter for the dish! :-)

  3. It seems incomprehensible to have left over vodka. Even more unbelieveable that there would be confusion as to how to quickly dispose of it! A martini would have been a good starter for the dish! :-)

  4. It seems incomprehensible to have left over vodka. Even more unbelieveable that there would be confusion as to how to quickly dispose of it! A martini would have been a good starter for the dish! :-)

  5. JB in San Diego

    I agree that a martini is a good solution to the stated problem, though the more obvious solution for me would have been a bloody mary. But about the recipe…

    You forgot the step just after you start to saute the garlic to “quickly take a photo for your blog.” Oh, and before that, “scrub the stove clean so you don’t have photos of a tomato-splattered cooking surface on your blog.” :-)

    A more serious question: Where did the sauteed cloves of garlic go? Please don’t tell me they went in the garbage disposal.

  6. Adam this sounds so good…do I have to be careful when I add the vodka so as not to have it ignite?

    and is there anyway I don’t have to burn off all the alcohol….lol (not really)

  7. Yummm!! I’m a huge fan of penne (or rigatoni) alla vodka. It’s one of my favorite pasta dishes but I have yet to make vodka sauce from scratch. Thanks for the recipe!

  8. The parsley is the most important part, I think. I use tons of it. And I leave the garlic in, but cook it with the tomatoes for a little longer.

  9. You know, I saw this this morning and knew I had to make it for dinner tonight, but I should have stuck to my guns and used your recipe. I used an old one that’s sort of worked for me in the past, but it just fell apart tonight. Oh well — perhaps I can try again tomorrow.

  10. I love Lidia! and this seems so much easier than I would have imagined. Also a perfect way to use my new immersion blender xmas present! thanks for the suggestion…

  11. If you love Penne alla Vodka, come to Central NY (Utica-Rome area… it’s only 5 hours by train!) and try chicken riggies–it’s vodka-cream sauce, with chicken & hot cherry peppers on rigatoni. Fantastic.

  12. This looks delicious! If I hadn’t already decided to make Jamie Oliver’s all-day breakfast salad for dinner tonight, I’d be all over this (my problem isn’t left over vodka, but left over bacon).

    Also, congrats on five years, Adam! I love the new banner!

  13. Excellent! Why have I not thought of this? I’ve had a bottle of vodka sitting in a cupboard for months, yet when I see recipes that call for it I always think “I don’t want to buy a whole bottle for 1/4 a cup.” Duh.

  14. I love Pasta a la Vodka! Make it all the time, since it’s such a quick and easy meal, with ingredients I almost always have on hand.

    While I love Lydia and all that she does, I was taught differently by my aunt (who lives in Rome and married an italian). Her method is to add the vodka directly to the drained pasta and let it absorb for a few minutes (stirring it around a few times). Then add the tomato sauce, cream, cheese et al. Seems to be a more intense flavor that way.

    Of course, my cousin makes it with considerably more vodka as well. No lighting matches in the house when he’s cooking!!

  15. Wow, looks delicious. I’m a sucker for creamy pasta sauces, so I’ll have to try this soon!

    I do have a question though: what’s the advantage of buying whole canned tomatoes and pureeing them as opposed to just buying crushed tomatoes and using them? Do you get more actual tomato pulp out of the whole tomatoes, so more tomato “meat” and better flavor? I’m sincerely curious, so let me know if you know!


    PS Why worry about leftover vodka? It isn’t like the stuff is going to go bad! Or, you could just eat penne a la vodka and drink martinis all winter–nothing wrong with that, right? ;)

  16. I second the question about crushed tomatoes. I actually came over from my RSS feeder just to ask that. I’m going to make this tonight with crushed tomatoes (since that’s all I have in the house), so I’ll let you know if it works at least. Although, I also sincerely want to know if it would taste better with the whole ones.

  17. Hi Jessica D. & Kate–

    That’s a really good question you both have; and the only answer I can come up with is: buying whole tomatoes in a can and pureeing it yourself is sort of like buying a whole head of garlic and chopping the cloves yourself. Sure, you can buy garlic already chopped, just like you can buy tomatoes already pulverized, but something about the integrity of the tomato–much like the integrity of the garlic–is compromised when it’s pre-chopped and exposed to all that air. At least that’s my theory; but, for a typical weeknight dinner, I’d say go with the pre-crushed and let me know how it turns out.


  18. I’ve never had penne vodka, but reading your post is making me want to give it a go. I actually don’t even have 2 bottles of vodka leftover from any special events, but I’m thinking it would be a worthy investment, even if it was just to cook this dish. Yum!

  19. I agree with sygyzy-this recipe looks delicious but why, why, why would you dispose of the garlic? Happy birthday by the way. I love reading this post.

  20. My husband LOVES vodka sauce. It’s a great thing to make when you have company because it seems quite fancy, yet it’s really not that hard. To the person who asked about skipping the vodka, yes, I’ve made it without the vodka before but then it’s just kind of a creamy tomato sauce.

  21. Well I made it with a can of crushed tomatoes. It worked, but it wasn’t quite as brightly colored, although I don’t know if that was because of the crushed tomatoes or because I used half and half instead of whole cream. It was delicious though!

  22. I made this last night. WAY too plain tasting. There’s simply too much tomatoe and/or cream. We had to put loads of parmesan on. Also, ours was very heavily sauced. It wasn’t ‘dry’ looking like yours, which I think I would have preferred. Probably 1/3 cup of sauce left at the bottom of each finished bowl of pasta.

  23. I had to laugh when I got this post on my reader since I can totally relate. I ended up with lots of extra red wine after Christmas, with a few half full bottles open and have been doing lots of red wine reductions, braises, etc. While I am not worried about having too much alcohol around, I definitely took advantage of the open bottles in my recipes. I can’t say that I will be making a penne anytime soon since I don’t eat much pasta due to wheat sensitivities (and just not liking pasta), but the sauce has planted some ideas!

  24. I made this last night as well and it was soooo good. I threw in some chopped up linguica and put some Parmesan in the sauce and some asiago on top. Fantastic!

  25. boooo what the fuck. parsley, not basil? 1/4 cup not a full cup and simmer? where the fuck are the onions?

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