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Penne alla Vodka is a classic Italian pasta dish made with penne pasta in a creamy tomato and vodka sauce. So simple, but so good!
Penne alla Vodka is one of those recipes that (I think) too often gets overlooked in Italian cuisine. To look at the dish – it’s just penne pasta in tomato sauce. But when you look under the hood (so to speak), there’s a lot more to this simple, delicious comfort food.
In Italian cuisine, you don’t often find cream sauce mixed with tomatoes or red sauce because the acidity of the tomatoes makes the oil in the cream separate. But in Penne alla Vodka – the vodka serves as an emulsifier which prevents that separation from occurring.
Plus – the acidity of the vodka is also believed to release flavors from the tomatoes that you wouldn’t normally detect in a traditional tomato sauce. And Jack and I can both definitely vouch for that – this Penne alla Vodka is uniquely delicious!
Penne alla Vodka is an extremely simple dish that can be prepared in about the same time it takes to cook the pasta. The simple sauce gets a punch of flavor from minced fresh garlic and shallots, prosciutto, and a pinch of red pepper flakes – plus chopped fresh basil and freshly grated Parmesan cheese are added on top as your Penne alla Vodka is served.
Key Ingredients and Substitutions
Penne pasta – This is the traditional choice (hence the name). The firm pasta tube holds the perfect amount of sauce inside – giving you the best balance of flavors in each bite.
Tomatoes – We highly recommend using canned, crushed San Marzano tomatoes in this recipe. They are less acidic than other canned tomato varieties, giving you the best overall flavor.
Vodka – Any vodka you have on hand will work just fine in this dish.
Prosciutto – The saltiness of the meat adds another layer of flavor to the penne and vodka sauce. An imported variety will be less chewy than domestic, but either will be delicious!
Shallots – These have a more delicate and sweeter flavor than regular onions, allowing them to blend seamlessly into the dish.
Heavy cream – Don’t be tempted to swap in a lower fat cream…
Parmesan cheese – A fine microplane grater produces the tiniest of shreds that melt quickly and easily into the sauce. If you don’t have this tool, simply use the smallest holes on a box grater.
Fresh basil – We recommend chopping this just before adding it to the dish. Be sure to use a very sharp knife so you don’t bruise the leaves.
Special supplies needed
Why You’ll Love Penne alla Vodka
- It can be on the table in less than thirty minutes.
- Simple, fresh ingredients come together to achieve incredible flavors and silky texture.
- This recipe is fancy enough for a dinner party, but simple enough for a weeknight dinner.
How do you make Penne alla Vodka?
- Boil the pasta in salt water until just shy of al dente. Note that the penne will continue to cook through after it has been combined with the other ingredients in the vodka tomato sauce. As the pasta cooks, prepare the vodka sauce.
- Sauté prosciutto and shallots in olive oil, along with garlic and red pepper flakes, until the shallots are softened.
- Add the vodka and let it simmer for about a minute, then stir in the tomatoes with salt and pepper. After a few minutes, pour in the cream and remove the pan from heat until you are ready to add the pasta.
- Return the sauce to the stove burner and melt in the butter, stirring to combine.
- Transfer the penne to the sauce pan with a spider strainer or slotted spoon, along with some of the starchy water. Continue cooking until the pasta is tender.
- Finish with freshly grated Parmesan and finely chopped basil. Add more seasonings if needed.
Chef’s Tip – Don’t pour the pasta water down the drain. The cooking water contains starch, which you’ll need to finish the creamy vodka sauce. Reserve about a cup of the water – use half in the recipe, and keep the rest to loosen the sauce or to use when reheating leftovers.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does Penne alla Vodka last in the refrigerator? When kept in an airtight container, this dish will keep for 3-4 days. We don’t recommend freezing it, as the cream will become grainy when thawed and reheated.
Can I make this recipe without alcohol? Unfortunately, vodka is essential for the sauce to achieve that amazingly creamy texture. Most of the alcohol cooks off in the pan, so you won’t taste the bitterness or feel the effects.
What’s the best way to reheat penne in vodka sauce? Warm the dish on the stove, stirring occasionally to break up the pieces that are stuck together. If you reserved extra pasta water, add a splash at a time as needed to get the right consistency.
Can I serve this sauce on other types of pasta? Sure! Try it on ravioli, tortellini, or between layers of lasagna.
Can I add extra vegetables to this recipe? If you’d like! Mushrooms, olives, or sliced zucchini would be wonderful, and extra veggies are a great way to stretch the number of servings.
You may enjoy these other simple pasta recipes:
- Spaghetti all’Amatriciana
- Pasta con Tonno
- Pasta Sauce Raphael
- Pasta al Finocchio
- Pasta with Yellow Pepper Sauce
This post originally appeared on A Family Feast in 2019.
1 pound penne pasta
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
Pinch red pepper flakes
1/4 pound sliced prosciutto cut into pieces
1/4 cup shallots, diced
1/2 cup vodka
1 28-ounce can crushed San Marzano tomatoes (we used Cento brand)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Few grinds black pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1/2 cup fresh basil, finely chopped (don’t chop until ready to add to the dish)
Place a large pot of water on to boil and once boiling, add some salt and the pasta and cook just short of done.
While the pasta water is heating, prep all ingredients and in a large sauté pan or skillet, place olive oil, garlic, pepper flakes, prosciutto and shallots and cook over medium heat for 3-4 minutes or until shallots are soft.
Add vodka and cook for one minute.
Add tomatoes, salt and pepper and cook uncovered for three minutes, then add the cream and remove from heat.
Once the pasta is done, return heat to the sauce, and stir in the butter and cook for two minutes. With a spider or strainer, scoop out and add the pasta to the sauce along with ½ cup of pasta water.
Cook just until the pasta is cooked, adding more pasta water as needed.
Add in the Parmesan and stir.
Chop the basil and add and stir again. Adjust seasoning if needed.
Serve with additional Parmesan cheese.
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