Penne alla Vodka

By • August 20, 2011 12 Comments

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Author Notes: Every once in a while we spike the tomato sauce.

You should try it sometime. What is better draped over pasta perfectly al dente than a tangy, velvety vodka sauce? Our friends and family tell us that no vodka sauce is as intoxicatingly delicious as ours, and we believe them.

Onions and pancetta sautéed in butter is part of the secret. The mild sweetness of the cream juxtaposed with the heat of crushed red pepper is another. A perfectly smooth tomato sauce is a must, but there is another ingredient yet that makes our vodka sauce special – brandy.

We have our sister-in-law, Valentina, to thank for the brilliant decision to add brandy to vodka sauce. We’re not sure why she has always added it, but we know that it makes the difference between a good vodka sauce and a great one.

Most of us are attracted to vodka sauce because of the sophisticated, slightly risque image it solicits (pasta sauce risque??). There is functionality behind the fashion, however. Tomatoes have flavor compounds that are alcohol-soluble, meaning that they are released by alcohol. While the sauce simmers, the vodka and brandy tease these intense flavors out of the tomatoes. The alcohol cooks off (mostly) in the process, leaving just a hint of boozy undertones.

So, go ahead and add some hooch to your tomato sauce from time to time. You’re sure to become addicted.

Food52 Review: WHO: DueSpaghetti is a food blogger who lives in Minneapolis.
WHAT: A perfect version of the Italian-American classic.
HOW: Sauté onion and pancetta; add tomatoes, vodka, and brandy; stir in cream; toss with pasta.
WHY WE LOVE IT: It's really difficult to not like penne alla vodka -- and DueSpaghetti's version is one that we'll make over and over again. The addition of brandy gives it a depth that's not usually found in the vodka-only versions, and taking the time to simmer results in a sauce that's rich and tangy in all the right places.
The Editors

Serves 4

  • 1 pound package of penne or pennette
  • One 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 of a medium onion
  • 6 ounces pancetta
  • 1/2 cup panna da cucina, crema mexicana, creme fraiche or heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup vodka
  • 1/4 cup brandy
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • Salt
  • Parmesan
  1. Cut the onion into large pieces that can be removed once sautéed.
  2. Dice the pancetta into small cubes.
  3. In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.
  4. Add the onion and pancetta and sauté until the onions are translucent and the pancetta is crispy.
  5. Place the food mill on top of the saucepan and pass the tomatoes and their sauce through it, producing a smooth tomato sauce.
  6. Add the vodka, brandy, crushed red pepper and salt. Allow to simmer for 45 minutes.
  7. Remove from heat, and add the panna da cucina and stir well.
  8. In the meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil. Add a handful of salt to the water, and add the pasta.
  9. Cook to al dente according to the time on the package.
  10. Drain the pasta, return it to the pot, and pour the sauce over it. Serve immediately topped with grated Parmesan.
  • This recipe is a Wildcard Contest Winner!
  • This recipe is a Community Pick!

More Great Recipes: Pasta|Entrees|Tomatoes

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Comments (12) Questions (3)


28 days ago Shauna Mageean

Made this tonight, delicious! Like others, I just chopped a small onion finely and cooked along with the pancetta. I used passata rather than milling tomatoes (who has a mill hanging around??!) and it worked beautifully. I used whipping cream (I'm in Ireland) This will become one I go back to again.


3 months ago chef Lisa

I make this simple to prepare, but oh so good dish at least once a month! I've tried others, but keep coming back to this. Thank you for sharing!


7 months ago Pegeen

Pegeen is a trusted home cook.


7 months ago Jean Boland

Can I use garbanzo beans in place of great northern beans.


10 months ago ECMotherwell

Simple and delicious!


11 months ago rob weaver

i'm sure this sauce is tasty but i've never understood the addition of vodka, a.k.a. moonshine, the easiest of all liquors because it takes no skill to make [ go to the liquor store and notice the preponderance of vodkas over other, more complicated types of liquor] . it has no flavor, no flavor at all and in the process of cooking the sauce the alcohol is driven off. what's the point?


11 months ago juliunruly

From Wikipedia: "The vodka's function is, ostensibly, to release flavors in the tomato that are normally inaccessible"

But according to Arthur Schwartz ("The Food Maven") it's a product of the liquor industry's marketing, trying to get Italians to buy more vodka. I wouldn't be surprised.


over 1 year ago juliunruly

I had one major problem with this recipe: The ingredients calls for a can of whole tomatoes, and then the instructions mentions "the food mill" as if everyone and their mother owns one and we'd all already known we'd need it.

HOWEVER: I made do without, and this is easily the best pasta I've ever had in my life. And I've made a LOT of pasta - including at least a dozen from this site, INCLUDING the tomato sauce with butter and onion (which has been my gospel up until recently).

So anyway, this is great, make it immediately.

p.s., the "Cut the onion into large pieces that can be removed once sauteed" part is also cryptic and confusing. Just saying.


about 1 year ago Scott Basye

I'm making this tonight and also don't get the comment about large pieces of onion. Are they supposed to be removed? It would be hell with the pancetta in there, I'd guess.


about 1 year ago juliunruly

I leave them in and it's delicious. Don't bother trying to fish them out.


about 1 year ago Scott Basye

I actually put the pancetta in and crisped it up, then added the butter and onion and I minced the onion. It seemed silly to worry about it. It was really really good!


almost 3 years ago Moni

Yum. I used red wine instead of brandy and added chopped garlic. This was probably a serious departure from traditional recipes, but nevertheless quite tasty.