Think pink (sauce).
Few dishes are as purely comforting and delicious as penne alla vodka. Here’s a fabulous pasta with homemade pink vodka sauce recipe, adapted from a top Italian chef.
Meet Your Pasta alla Vodka
The origins of penne alla vodka are somewhat murky. But one thing is not in dispute: This retro, classic Italia pasta recipe, with its pink tomato sauce infused with cheese, cream, and (yes) actual vodka, is one of the best and easiest ways to serve pasta.
This recipe is adapted from the great chef Missy Robbins, owner of Brooklyn’s celebrated Lilia restaurant and co-author of Pasta, one of my 2021 picks for best cookbook of the year. The recipe ingredients and quantities are virtually unchanged; I simplified the method a bit.
Making the Homemade Pink Vodka Sauce: Recipe Steps
This pink vodka sauce recipe comes together easily, and requires less than an hour start to finish. Don’t skimp on the quality of the ingredients; their simplicity demands the quality.
To make your homemade vodka sauce:
- Cook the diced onion in a bit of olive oil until translucent, then add the garlic and chili flakes.
- Add the tomato paste and vodka and let the alcohol cook off.
- Add the crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce. Stir and simmer, partially covered, for about 30 minutes.
- Stir in the cream and mascarpone (more on that soon). Season with salt.
- Remove about 1 pint of sauce and reserve. You can freeze this. Add 1 pound of al dente penne or other tubular pasta such as rigatoni to the remaining sauce, perhaps with a little pasta water.
- Toss, and let the pasta marry with the sauce and finish cooking, adding the butter and a bit of pasta water as needed to loosen it.
- Serve hot with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and some red chili flakes.
The pink vodka sauce ingredients
To make the sauce, you will need the following:
- olive oil
- dried red chili flakes
- tomato paste
- tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
- heavy cream
- grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, to serve
Does the vodka add alcohol? Flavor?
Honestly, the vodka does not add much flavor to the pink sauce (in my opinion). In fact, one origin story of penne alla vodka states that in the 1970s or so, a chef used his flask to thin a pasta sauce, no more, no less.
Some think that the vodka enhances the flavor of the tomato. I don’t really think so, but it’s an essential part of the dish so I add it anyway. But think of this as permission to leave it out if you like.
Pasta alla Vodka Sauce
- 1 pound dried penne or other medium-sized tubular pasta, such as ziti or rigatoni
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion, finely diced
- 3 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 teaspoon dried chili flakes, plus more to serve
- 1/3 cup tomato paste
- 1/3 cup vodka
- 24 ounce can unsalted tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes (I use Cento)
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 cup mascarpone (more on this below)
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, to serve
- In a wide-bottomed pot or skillet with high sides, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until translucent and softened, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and chili flakes and stir for an additional 20 seconds or so.PRO TIP: Don't get any color on the onion or garlic or the sauce will develop a harsh, acrid flavor. Stir often and adjust the heat as necessary.
- Stir the tomato paste into the onion and garlic and let it cook for a couple of minutes. Add the vodka and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the alcohol burns off, about 3 to 5 minutes.
- Add the tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes, along with a big glug of water you just swirled around in the can to get the rest of the tomato out.
- Cook at a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes. Fold in the cream and mascarpone. Add salt to taste. Remove about 2 cups of the sauce and set aside for another use. (You can refrigerate or freeze this.)PRO TIP: Don't have mascarpone? You can hack the flavor by combining equal parts softened cream cheese and sour cream (or plain Greek yogurt) with a splash of heavy cream.
- While the vodka sauce cooks, bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil and cook your penne or preferred pasta until just under al dente.
- Reserve a cup of pasta water. Drain the pasta and add it to the vodka sauce, along with the butter and some of the pasta water. Simmer together for an additional minute, stirring, to allow the pasta to finish cooking in the sauce. PRO TIP: The sauce texture should be silky and loose, neither thin and watery nor thick and clumpy. Add a splash of pasta water as necessary.
- Taste for seasoning. Spoon the pasta into pasta bowls. Top generously with the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and a sprinkle of red chili flakes.