Make Ahead

Penne alla Vodka

April 30, 2021
11 Ratings
Photo by James Ransom
  • Serves 4
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. —DueSpaghetti

Test Kitchen Notes

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

What You'll Need
  • 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.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Erika Kotite
    Erika Kotite
  • Chef Lisa
    Chef Lisa
  • ECMotherwell
  • rob weaver
    rob weaver
  • juliunruly

29 Reviews

Ann S. January 15, 2023
I made this pretty much exactly as written, and it was easy and delicious. I was just wanting to use up some whipping cream left over from the holidays and this popped up as a possibility. Since the instructions don't specify actually removing the onion after sauteeing (I give up on how to spell that without a "squiggle" from spellcheck), I decided to do as some other reviewers and finely chop the onion and leave it in. I don't know the science but am wondering if the vodka and brandy serve to emulsify all the fat with the tomato and cream. I had a worrisome amount of fat in the pan but didn't want to drain it off and lose all that flavour. Once the alcohol was in, the sauce really came together nicely, and did not separate again, even when I refrigerated leftovers. One important deviation - I did not ladle the sauce on top of the pasta but instead finished cooking the pasta in the sauce with some of the pasta cooking water. If you don't have a food mill, just use the equivalent volume of passata - it is essentially the same thing as canned whole tomatoes run through a food mill. I happened to have a can of really good Italian tomatoes that needed using up, and a food mill, so I went that route but don't bother with the extra work if you don't need to. This recipe made exactly 4 cups of sauce for me, and 1 1/3 cups was perfect for two modest portions of penne (probably 160 grams total). I stashed two more meals' worth in the freezer with high hopes that it will freeze well.
Ann S. April 30, 2023
I've very happy to report that this does indeed freeze well. Wonderful to have on hand for a super quick weeknight meal.
TheAngel March 13, 2022
I love this recipe. I use gemelli instead of penne.
EmMa March 25, 2019
I usually makes this with marsala because I never have brandy, but it's incredible either way...word to the wise for those who like the kick the vodka gives it: you can double the vodka in the recipe and it just deepens the flavor!
Erika K. January 26, 2019
I've made this dish about a half dozen times and it never fails to astonish and delight. I do cheat and use tomato sauce and tomato puree instead of whole tomatoes. I don't know much about the science of vodka - all I know is that the combination of vodka and brandy is wonderfully tasty. I used thin-cut pancetta last time I made this and actually preferred it over cubed. This very dog-eared recipe printout is in my file marked "Favorites."
Gabrielle'sCookin' November 6, 2018
The sauce is perfectly smooth in the photo provided.
Gabrielle'sCookin' November 6, 2018
I hope someone at Food52 can address this recipe. Does this "velvety" sauce have chunks of pancetta and onion in it, or are they removed? And, if so - when?
Also, shouldn't the half inch of fat left behind by the pancetta be drained off?
DueSpaghetti November 6, 2018
We remove the onions at the end of cooking, but leave the pancetta. As far as draining the fat, it's up to you.
Ann S. January 6, 2023
Could you please amend the recipe instructions so that people don't have to read the comments to find all of the instructions? Thank you!
pat January 21, 2016
No garlic, huh! Shauna, you're right. Tweak away!
Nancy December 21, 2015
This is a lovely version of 1990s restaurant favorite. But/and would someone please resolve the conflict between claims in author note (that vodka releases tomato flavor) and comment by juliunruly that vodka presence is mostly/all the result of marketing...calling Harold McGee, Shirley Corriher, other food scientists for help, please.
Shauna M. August 5, 2015
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.
Meaghan A. December 20, 2015
How many ounces passata? thanks!
Shauna M. December 21, 2015
I just used a 500g pack for 4 people but I guess you could use more - the recipe says 28oz of tomatoes so you could use that as a guide - not sure what size cartons passata is sold in in the US! To be honest this recipe is pretty forgiving and you can adjust to your own taste.
Chef L. May 26, 2015
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!
Pegeen January 22, 2015
Jean B. January 21, 2015
Can I use garbanzo beans in place of great northern beans.
ECMotherwell November 14, 2014
Simple and delicious!
rob W. October 14, 2014
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?
juliunruly October 14, 2014
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.
juliunruly May 14, 2014
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.
Scott B. June 12, 2014
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.
juliunruly June 12, 2014
I leave them in and it's delicious. Don't bother trying to fish them out.
Scott B. June 12, 2014
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!
Moni November 10, 2012
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.
Mary B. January 9, 2021
Being Italian, I've always used red wine in
Mary B. January 9, 2021
sorry, I've always used red wine in my sauce just like my grandparents did when i was growing up
Mary B. January 9, 2021
ALWAYS garlic! You can't ever use too much garlic!
Mary B. January 9, 2021
also I use frozen fresh tomatoes from our garden pots. You may need to add some paste since the tomatoes release water, but I usually cook the sauce the old way, for hours to cook out the water, and Italian seasonings- fresh if you can get it.