I’d venture to guess there are as many ways to make vodka sauce as there are “red sauce restaurants” in Little Italy. Okay, maybe not that many, but there are still a lot of ways to make vodka sauce. (I’ve personally eaten at least 75 variations.) Like many classic pasta dishes, say, carbonara or amatriciana, vodka sauce has a pretty specific formula, yet people still have extremely strong opinions about how their way is the only way to make the stuff. I’ve had vodka sauce with onions and without. With lots and lots of cream or with...less (but still a lot of) cream. A punch bowl’s worth of vodka or just a splash. Finished with butter or not. Splashed with pasta water or not. Basil, sometimes. Maybe Parmesan, too.
So, I will enter into the pasta discourse with this vodka sauce recipe. But first: why vodka? It doesn’t have a strong flavor to impart, like red wine in a tomato sauce or beer in a marinade, and the dish gets its classic orange hue from the cream and tomato. So why stir it into sauce, especially when it could be poured over ice at 5 p.m. instead? Some say the vodka adds a touch of sweetness and heat; others swear it helps prevent the sauce from breaking. While there’s merit to both arguments, I think it’s mostly about preservation of the dish’s name.
This vodka sauce has onions (very finely chopped) and garlic (grated). It has cream and butter—but maybe not as much as you’d think. I prefer to amp up the creaminess with a mixture of grated Parm and pasta water, both of which are more salty and nuanced than cream, but when mixed together essentially take on a similar consistency and richness. I like this pasta on the spicier side, so I go for the full teaspoon of red pepper flakes; if you don’t like heat, use less—but do use at least a pinch to cut through some of the rich sauce. And, of course, there is vodka. (Note: The alcohol won’t cook out entirely, so if you don’t want to include it, substitute with 1/4 cup of pasta water and a good squeeze of lemon.) Presto: vodka sauce. Do I think it’s the best version? Sure, but I’m biased. You tell me. But here’s the real question: rigatoni, penne, or fusilli? —Rebecca Firkser