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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Felicity Cloake

How to make the perfect pasta alla vodka – recipe

Felicity Cloake’s perfect penne a la vodka.
Felicity Cloake’s perfect penne a la vodka. Photograph: Robert Billington/The Guardian. Food stylist: Loïc Parisot.

It’s telling that so many recipes for this “slightly kitsch” 1980s favourite, to quote the late and already much-missed restaurateur Russell Norman, begin with a sentence or two of self-justification. Norman, a proud fan who put penne alla vodka on the menu at his last restaurant, Brutto, notes that, “despite the potentially gimmicky nature” of the pairing, “it works exceptionally well”, while Nigella Lawson calls it “amusingly retro” but “seriously good”.

Squashed tube of tomato puree next to a bowl of squished-out puree

Norman first had it at the cult Florence restaurant Alla Vecchia Bettola, while Lawson discovered it at Taverna Flavia in Rome, the city where she says the recipe was born in the 1960s. Others point to the cream-free, vodka-spiked take on all’arrabbiata in the Italian actor Ugo Tognazzi’s 1974 cookbook and memoir L’Abbuffone as the original version, or claim it was created accidentally by a New York chef who reached for his hip flask to thin a sauce.

Evidence supports the theory that, traditional or not, the combination initially found favour with Italy’s nuova cucina movement before it crossed the Atlantic, though Ian MacAllen, author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, notes that Italian-born chef Armando Mei had penne alla vodka on the menu at his Manhattan restaurant “as early as 1967”. Whatever the history, it has more than earned its place as a serious dish: creamily rich, it has just enough acidity from the tomatoes, and heat and fruit from the vodka and chillies, to give credence to the claim that it’s America’s second greatest pasta sauce. Time for a revival over here, too?

The aromatic base

Chopped onion on a board with a knife

Though I know you’re all thirsty for the vodka element, I hate to disappoint you, but pasta alla vodka isn’t just noodles doused in strong liquor. The booze is just one element of a rich tomato sauce that generally starts with some finely chopped onion softened to golden sweetness in butter (Anna del Conte, Daniel Gritzer writing in Serious Eats, and Jo Bettoja and Anna Maria Cornetto’s recipe published in the New York Times in 1982, one of the first to be committed to print in English). Some recipes soften the onions in oil (as favoured by Lawson, who recommends one infused with garlic; Norman; Laura Goodman’s book Carbs; and Lindsey Bareham’s Big Red Book of Tomatoes). As the onions will be softened but not browned, there’s little danger of the butter burning, and it is this buttery base that gives the sauce a silky sweetness that works perfectly with the cream element.

Similarly, though not everyone uses the onion, it brings savoury depth; without it, the sauce brings back less-than-glamorous memories of sickbed cream of tomato soup. Just make sure, as Norman cautions, not to let it brown: buttery sweetness is what we’re after here, with just a hint of piquancy from a very modest amount of garlic (I lean towards Norman’s single clove for four people, or even Lawson’s infused oil).

I don’t think the dish strictly needs Del Conte or Norman’s oregano, though by all means add a pinch if you’d like some extra retro flavour (dried oregano always reminds me of Dolmio, I’m afraid), but chilli is a must. Thanks to the cream, this is never going to be as fiery a dish as an arrabbiata, but some of the recipes are so timid that there’s no heat at all. The amount listed should supply a gentle warmth that echoes, but doesn’t obscure, that of the vodka.

Chilli and chopped onion on a plate with a metal spoon

The tomatoes

Tinned tomatoes are the order of the day here (which is helpful at this time of year), and most recipes call for them to be drained, though, puzzlingly, relatively few suggest crushing them. Goodman explains that she prefers passata, “because I love the gloss you get when the smooth sauce coats the fusilli, blessing every fussy little nook”. I concur: it should be almost as silky as it is delicious, but I plan, as Norman and Gritzer do, to blend it before use, so whole tinned tomatoes will do nicely, as well as offering a more intense flavour without the diluting qualities of their juice.

Gritzer’s thoughtful piece on pasta alla vodka on the Serious Eats website notes that tomato puree brings “a wonderful fruity depth that, to me, gives the sauce part of its signature flavor”, yet it is too dry to stand alone. Tinned tomatoes, meanwhile, “provide a brighter, fruitier tomato character, but none of that tomato paste depth; a couple of tablespoons of paste aren’t enough to compensate for that”. His solution is to use both, which, as he correctly observes, creates “a sauce that’s nuanced and layered, with richness, depth and brightness”. It also avoids the need to add sugar, as Norman and Del Conte suggest; if you’d prefer to use tinned tomatoes alone (two tins should do it), then add a teaspoon at the end along with the cream, to round out the flavour.

Opened tin of plum tomatoes

Big Flavors from Italian America, a book from Cook’s Country magazine, uses sun-dried tomatoes and passata to create a “full-flavoured homemade sauce in roughly the time it takes to cook the pasta”. Pleased as I am to have an excuse to use up some of the jar that’s been taking up space on my shelf since my foray into vegan ragu, sun-dried tomatoes will always, for me, taste of the 1990s, and here their intensely savoury Mediterranean flavour is at odds with the gentle, fruity sweetness of the other ingredients (as are the perfumed basil leaves they stir in at the end), so tomato puree feels a much better bet.

Interestingly, Norman makes his sauce in a low oven, leaving it to simmer for 30-40 minutes. If you want to make a big batch, as no doubt they do at Brutto, then this steady heat is a good idea, but otherwise there’s no need to turn on the oven unnecessarily. (Incidentally, making a big batch may not be the worst idea you’ve ever had – Lawson says she “almost always” makes the sauce ahead, then simply warms it through and adds cream and vodka to serve.)

The vodka

Which brings us, finally, on to the vodka. Scientific authorities seem to disagree over its role in this sauce. Eric Kim cites the Journal of Food Science to back up the claim that “the ethanol helps more evenly disperse the fat, keeping the emulsified sauce bound, glossy and creamy”, while chemist Hervé This sternly informs the makers of the wonderful short documentary on the subject, Disco Sauce: “There is no possibility of a reaction between oil and ethanol.” What it will do, according to food science guru Harold McGee, “at very low concentrations, around 1% or less” is “actually enhance … the release of fruity esters and other aroma molecules into the air”. In other words, the alcohol will amplify the flavour of the other ingredients.

J Kenji López-Alt, who ran a series of experiments on this subject some years ago, determined that this was best achieved by adding 5% by volume of the total sauce, and simmering it for seven minutes to reduce it to about 1%. By contrast, Norman and Bettoja and Cornetto’s recipe, from their 1982 book Italian Cooking in the Grand Tradition, both slosh in the vodka at the start of the cooking, while Lawson writes in the New York Times: “It is, I find, better added to the drained pasta and not, as in all the recipes I’ve seen, stirred into the sauce.”

Looking down on opened bottle of vodka, its lid and a glass

The recipes I survey vary in their measures – from a mere tablespoon of vodka for four people (Anna del Conte) to 200ml, or just over 13 tablespoons (Norman) – but the one that really knocks my testers and me for six is Bettoja and Cornetto’s, which calls for all of 120ml, added right at the beginning, but with so little tomato that there’s little to distract from the alcohol. Cook’s Country and Gritzer’s versions (60ml and 120ml, respectively), meanwhile, are both very delicately boozy after prolonged simmering.

If you’re going to put vodka into a sauce, I think you should be able to taste it, as in Norman and Lawson’s versions, without that being all you can taste. Despite the lengthy cooking time, Norman’s dish retains its boozy character thanks to the sheer volume involved, while Lawson uses just a quarter of the amount, but adds it at the end, so there’s no danger of it getting lost. Both are definitely warming, but not harsh, which is as things should be: though it may have been defanged for the mass market (vodka sauce is sold in jars in every American grocery store), the upfront nature of the 1982 recipe suggests that it would originally have packed quite the punch. To keep the vodka character while keeping the cost down, I’ve adopted Lawson’s tactic of stirring it in at the end. Teetotallers, and children, this is not the pasta for you.

The dairy

Double cream, because this dish is nothing if not fun. I like more than Lawson, who stirs in a modest 12ml for four people, but less than Gritzer and Bettoja and Cornetto, whose 240ml seems slightly excessive, even to me; the cream should smooth out the tomato and vodka, rather than diluting them out of existence. Somewhere between Norman’s 60ml and Cook’s Country’s 180ml felt about right to my testers, but, as with the vodka, feel free to adjust according to your own palate.

Norman, Gritzer and Bettoja and Cornetto all add grated parmesan to their sauces, but, like Lawson, I’d prefer to save that for the end, so the tomato and vodka remain the principal flavours.

The pasta

Four pieces of dried penne

Penne is the most popular choice – though Bettoja and Cornetto also mention ziti, a long, penne-like shape more common in the US than here, and which is notable mainly because it’s usually smooth rather than ridged. Norman notes that “if you can find penne lisce – smaller and without ridges – this makes a much more authentic version of the dish”. I try my best to find both (“Smooth penne? What you want that for? Even in Italy no one eats this,” as the nice lady in one of the three Italian grocers I visit informs me ), before settling for the only smooth tubes I can find, namely paccheri.

I’d been led to understand that the rougher the pasta, the better – that an uneven surface is widely held to do a much better job at catching sauce – but, helpfully, someone gets on touch via Instagram to tell me that “the issue of penne lisce v rigate is hugely controversial … a good pasta doesn’t need the unevenness conferred by the ‘stripes’ to capture the sauce, because the quality of the grain, the use of bronze processing machinery and extensive drying periods ensure a coarse surface that makes the stripes redundant”. Indeed, the sauce coats the paccheri beautifully, and we do indeed prefer their slippery surface with the silkiness of the sauce, but if you can’t find any, it’ll still be delicious.

Personally, as a penne sceptic (it’s not snobbery; I just don’t find it an enjoyable shape to eat), I, like the Serious Eats team, prefer rigatoni (which doesn’t, of course, come in a smooth variety), but you might, like Goodman, choose fusilli, or go rogue with whatever you happen to have handy. Just make sure you give any Italians at the table enough vodka that they don’t notice.

Perfect pasta alla vodka

Prep 10 min
Cook 25 min
Serves 4

2 tbsp butter
1 small onion
, peeled and finely chopped
1 x 400g tin plum tomatoes
1 garlic clove
, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp chilli flakes
130g concentrated tomato puree
320-400g penne, ziti, rigatoni or similar
100ml double cream
60ml vodka
Grated parmesan
, to serve

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan on a medium-low heat, then gently fry the onion with a pinch of salt, stirring regularly to make sure it doesn’t brown, until soft and golden.

Chopped-up onion fried in a pan

Meanwhile, drain the plum tomatoes, saving the juice for another purpose (such as a bloody mary) and put a large pan of water on to boil.

Stir the garlic and chilli into the onion, fry for another couple of minutes, then stir in the tomato puree, followed by the drained tomatoes.

Tomato sauce in a pan with a wooden spoon

Mash gently with a spoon, then simmer for about 10 minutes, until thick.

03a Felicity Cloake’s perfect penne a la vodka 068 f. Stir the garlic and chilli into the onion and fry for another couple of minutes, then stir in the tomato puree followed by the tomatoes. Mash gently, and simmer for about 10 minutes, until thick.

While it’s reducing, salt the boiling water, then cook the pasta in it until it’s very slightly under how you like it.

use a stick blender to whizz the sauce to a puree, then stir in the cream and vodka, and warm through.

When the pasta is nearly ready, use a stick blender to whizz the sauce to a puree, then stir in the cream and vodka, and warm through.

Taste and season as necessary.

Penne in a colander

Drain the pasta, saving a mug of its cooking water, then toss with the sauce, adding a little of the reserved water, if need be, to loosen and emulsify.

Divide between bowls and serve with grated parmesan.

  • Pasta alla vodka: can anyone shed any more light on its origins, or explain why it’s so popular in the US and largely forgotten elsewhere? And how do you like to make yours?

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