Penne alla Vodka is a rich creamy tomato sauce that takes pasta dishes to a whole new level of decadent deliciousness. The heavy cream and grated Romano cheese along with the sweet San Marzano tomatoes add layers of flavor to this pasta sauce.
You’ll find many variations of this recipe on the internet, most adding sugar, and some adding meat. You really don’t need any extra ingredients or an overabundance of onions, shallots or garlic to make this easy pasta recipe.
I’m sure you’ll agree that this simple sauce truly is the best Penne Vodka Sauce you’ll ever make after tasting this dish.
If you love creamy, cheesy pasta dishes, you’ll love my Easy Cacio e Pepe Recipe.
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Is Penne alla Vodka really an Italian dish?
The short answer is no, it isn’t. It was created by a New York Chef in the seventies and is a gimmicky take on Pasta with Rosa Sauce, which was created in Italy long before the vodka version became popular.
But as things go, Penne alla Vodka actually became a trendy dish in Italy during the eighties. And since the Italians did come up with the Rosa Sauce long before Penne alla Vodka came into being, they pretty much claim to be the originators of the sauce.
Let’s start by gathering the ingredients we need to make Penne alla Vodka. In Chef Speak this is called the “Mise en Place” which translates to “Everything in its Place”.
Not only does setting your ingredients up ahead of time speed up the cooking process, it also helps ensure you have everything you need to make the dish.
Is Vodka really needed to make this dish?
Technically to be called a vodka sauce, vodka needs to be in the sauce. But in this chef’s opinion, it’s a waste of good vodka. You could use a little wine, but truth be told a little of the pasta cooking water will help the texture of the sauce achieve the right consistency.
In my younger wilder days, I was a serious vodka drinker, and honestly who really likes the flavor of vodka? It won’t hurt the sauce, but it really won’t help the sauce, so it’s entirely up to you if you want to add vodka to your sauce.
How to make Penne alla Vodka
When the sauce is simmering, begin cooking the penne for the dish.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according to package instructions. Drain the cooked pasta well reserving ½ cup of pasta cooking water.
- Melt the butter in a large skillet. Then add the garlic and shallots to the pan over medium-low heat. Although them to cook for 3-4 minutes until fragrant, stirring as needed. This is one of the few Italian tomato sauces that start with butter instead of olive oil.
- Add tomato paste and red pepper flakes to the pan.
- Mix the pasta and pepper flakes into the garlic shallot mixture, and continue cooking for an additional minute or two.
- Remove the pan from the burner and add the vodka to the pan. Vodka can ignite with high heat so be careful. *This is usually only a problem with gas heat, but it’s better to be safe when adding any alcohol to a hot pan.
- Add the crushed tomatoes to the pan and mix well. Bring the sauce to a boil, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Continue to cook the sauce for 10 minutes stirring the mixture occasionally. *Real San Marzano tomatoes do not come crushed, only as whole tomatoes. You can crush them by hand or with an immersion blender or food processor.
- Add the heavy cream and Romano cheese (or parmesan cheese) to the creamy vodka sauce and mix until smooth. Continue to simmer the sauce for 2 minutes. *Don’t let the sauce cook too long or the cheese will start to stick to the bottom of the pan.
- Add the fresh basil to the sauce and mix it into the sauce. Taste the sauce and reseason with salt and black pepper as needed.
Add the pasta to the sauce and add 1-2 tablespoons of the reserved pasta water to the sauce. If the sauce is too thick add more pasta water to the sauce.
Chef Dennis Tip
To make a quick Vodka Sauce aka Rosa Sauce simply add cream, grated romano cheese, and fresh chopped basil to a tomato sauce. It can be homemade tomato sauce or store-bought. It’s easy to put together and makes a delicious quick weeknight dinner.
Serve the Penne alla Vodka, garnishing the dish with fresh chopped parsley and additional grated cheese. Remember that people eat with their eyes first so make the plate pretty.
Chef Dennis Tip
If you’d like to kick up this dish, add chicken tenders, shrimp (grilled, baked or sauteed) or your favorite veggies to the sauce. You may need to build the sauce out a little to make up for the added ingredients but that’s easy enough to do with a little more cream or crushed tomatoes.
Allegedly it helps maintain a cohesive texture allowing the sauce to emulsify properly. But as all the alcohol burns off, you’re not really left with much to help with emulsification. White wine would also work with the same results. Vodka is also supposed to enhance the tomato flavor, but I’ve never noticed it. So if you want to leave the vodka out, it’s really going to make a difference in the saue.
Some might, but for the most part, a simple Rosa Sauce is what you’ll see gracing the tables in Italy if you see any type of creamy tomato sauce. A Rosa Sauce is exactly the same, it just doesn’t include vodka.
It is basically the same. Some say a pink sauce is mixing tomato sauce with an alfredo sauce, but since a real alfredo sauce doesn’t include cream, I don’t think that is the case. A pink sauce is also referred to as a rosa sauce, which in essence is a vodka sauce without the vodka.
The pasta was delicious! And extra bonus points for dinner on the table in under 30 minutes. Thank you!
This sauce was so easy to make and came out perfect! It was rich, creamy, and flavorful. I served it with salad and garlic bread. It was better than eating out!
I was pleasantly surprised at how easy and how delicious this pasta sauce was! Perfect, classic recipe!
This Penne alla vodka was delicious and my whole family devoured it. It’s amazing that such simple ingredients make such a flavorful dish. I will be making this again.
This was the perfect dinner for our meatless Monday! The whole family devoured every bite and asked that we have it again already!
Such a simple pasta sauce but so incredibly flavorful! I always get this one at restaurants but never made it at home till now. Your recipe was amazing!
Oh Dennis…you weren’t kidding. This really is the best. My husband and I couldn’t stop eating it!!
Your recipe is so much more tastier than restaurants I’ve eaten this pasta at. It was a huge hit with my family, definitely going on rotation.
I made this over the weekend for my husband, and we both absolutely loved it! I just love how it tastes restaurant quality, but the ingredients and cooking process are so, so simple. We’ll definitely make it again.
This is my new favourite pasta sauce! Simple and delicious!
Aung San Win
Wonderful penne alla vodka Recipe, thanks!
Should I add the liquid from the can of tomatoes? Thanks for your help and great recipes of all types.
Chef Dennis Littley
yes, use the entire contents of the can of tomatoes.