Penne alla Vodka and an Italian sipper showdown

By: Eric Guido


Over the last four months I’ve posted recipes that could take from an hour to six hours of preparation and usually with a decent hit to the wallet.  So I got to thinking about the average person or aspiring cook in this busy day and age. I know that entertaining can be laborious and often expensive, but what if you could make a pasta plate that could stand tall next to anything a restaurant has to offer and do it in under a half hour from start to finish?  Then, what if I told you it could cost less than $30 to feed a party of four?  Seems too good to be true?  Well it’s not; it’s Penne alla Vodka.

What to expect: Negroamaro

Negroamaro - Black and bitter in Italian, not surprisingly has origins in Southern Italy's Puglia region. An important grape, both on it's own, and as a blending grape. It contributes a rich, slightly rustic mouthfeel to a finished wine and imbues it with a slightly burnt, earthy quality that accentuates the deep, roasted plum and mocha toned fruit.
To make it even better, I’ve paired three Italian wines that were all purchased for under $15 each.  The wines were a Barbera d’Alba from northern Italy, a Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo from central Italy and a Negroamaro from the south.  Each wine was a shoe in for a good pairing but I was also eager to see which would be the perfect companion to this dish.

Penne alla Vodka is not a traditional Italian preparation and searching for its roots leads to a wealth of disinformation and theories.  What is fact is that ages ago it was realized that alcohol can help to bring out flavors in tomatoes that cannot otherwise be obtained through any other preparation.  This is often why a red sauce will include wine in its list of ingredients.  Not only does it help to bring out these flavors but it also imparts its own qualities to the sauce. Penne alla Vodka is a balancing act of flavors.  The sweet sautéed garlic and onions play against the woodsy and smoky pancetta.  The crushed red pepper provides a heat that is kept in check by the addition of heavy cream, which also rounds out any rough edges left behind by the vodka.  The tomatoes take center stage providing a deep, fresh, succulent tomato flavor that, I find, can only be achieved in this dish.  Lastly, the basil grounds you in reality with an earthy, vegetal mistiness, which brings it all together… God I love Penne alla Vodka!

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  • Thank you for choosing something on the simpler side! This meal sounds absolutely delicious and not so time consuming for a busy mom. I will pair with your suggested wines as well!

    Jan 15, 2010 at 11:41 AM

  • Snooth User: destne
    176212 3

    Thanks for this! Can't wait to try it (and the wine)!

    Jan 15, 2010 at 12:12 PM

  • Snooth User: ssdenali
    106421 15

    I just LOVE when you have recipies! We usually make a day of it, with your Ratatouille recipe we went to the farmers market in Hollywood to get all the fresh vegies and herbs and a yummy crusty loaf of french sourdough. We came home and made the dish. We rented and watched the movie Ratatouille while enjoying our dinner with a bottle of McMurry Ranch Sanoma Coast Pinot Noir.... I look forward to trying this quick recipe for possibly a weeknight dinner!

    Jan 15, 2010 at 12:16 PM

  • Snooth User: pplepiew
    133188 2

    Wonderful simple recipe that can have many variations. Mine is to add one or two roughly chopped filets of anchovy with the onion and garlic as well as a pinch of chopped pine nuts for each person, and a thin slice of Prosciutto folded on top as decoration. If you try this make sure you reduce the salt slightly as the anchovies and prosciutto will contribute in that respect.

    The addition of anchovies in the base sauce will make this recipe a perfect match for a rich but affordable Zenato Ripassa Valpolicella Superiore.

    Jan 15, 2010 at 2:52 PM

  • Snooth User: geofk
    276972 1

    We made this dish about a week ago with a recipe almost identical to the one you have posted, and it was one of the finest pasta dishes we have ever had!!

    Jan 15, 2010 at 3:54 PM

  • Snooth User: Dahgini
    337974 1

    What is the recipe of your "Penne alla Vodka" ??

    Jan 15, 2010 at 4:28 PM

  • Snooth User: bropaul
    268864 117

    One of my favorite pasta dishes!

    Jan 15, 2010 at 4:57 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 5,000

    Eric, another great version of a feel-good (and taste delicious) standard. I've done literally dozens of variations off this approach over the years, and have never (well maybe once) had a disappointment. Sometimes I use Zubrowka vodka for the added flavor the buffalo grass in it gives (though I'm not sure how available it is in the States these days).

    Dahgini, look to page 3 of this article....

    Jan 15, 2010 at 5:49 PM

  • Snooth User: Eric Guido
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    92549 196,467

    Thanks everyone, I love this dish and after making it many times and in many different ways, this has become my favorite and an all around crowd pleaser. I find a lot of Penne alla vodka recipes to include processing the parts into a single consistency but I'm a much bigger fan of being able to identify all the parts and taste them as layers within the sauce.

    When you hit a chunk of tomato in this recipe, it's like an explosion of flavor.

    dmcker - interesting point about the vodka you use. I don't know much about the differences of spirits and so I've always gone for good brands but haven't experimented much with different types of vodka. you've tempted me...

    pplepiew - This is also something that has peaked my interests. I imagine it might give it something of a sicilian feel. I think I'll try that one day.

    ssdenali - Thanks so much, but i must give credit where it is due and that Ratatouille recipe was a creation from Greg Dal Piaz. A great recipe it is and I can see the Pinot pairing well. I think you'll love this penne dish though. Thanks!

    Jan 15, 2010 at 9:01 PM

  • Snooth User: Tamar1973
    94767 77

    I make this recipe all the time, but I use soju instead.

    Jan 15, 2010 at 9:51 PM

  • I tried this and my wife loved it even without the cream. It's like a wonderful simple enhanced marinara. It can be used with everything Italian.

    Jan 16, 2010 at 6:54 PM

  • Snooth User: npanuch
    72270 31

    Where is the recipe? I only see comments on the recipe, but no ingredients, or instructions?? Curious?

    Jan 16, 2010 at 7:18 PM

  • Snooth User: npanuch
    72270 31

    OOPS...I found it on the final page...

    Jan 16, 2010 at 7:25 PM

  • Snooth User: Deanie
    261173 6

    I was just talking about this dish with a friend, we had this at a resturant recently and were planning to try it at home. Thank you so much for this recipe, it was posted right on time! Can't wait to share it and to try it myself.

    Jan 18, 2010 at 7:53 AM

  • Snooth User: Eric Guido
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    92549 196,467

    Deanie, I'd love to know how it turns out. Thanks

    winemaker4-1, I grew up making sauces that cooked for hours. I love those preparations with all of my heart but if there's one thing that my experience in restaurants in has taught me, some ingredients don't like to be over-cooked. Since going to culinary school and working dinner shifts, I've found that my favorite sauces are those that are made in the pan, at the moment and from the freshest ingredients. That's what you have in this recipe. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Jan 19, 2010 at 10:48 PM

  • Snooth User: Sheylavee
    125088 1

    I have always loved this dish, so I just made this for me and my kids for lunch, not only was it fast, (from start to on the table in 1 hour!) but it was easy and delicious. This is certainly a keeper recipe and I will be sharing it with friends! Thanks!!

    Jan 20, 2010 at 8:28 AM

  • Snooth User: murphoc
    292629 1

    I tried this recipe and loved it. It is as authentic as sitting in a great Italian restaurant in Florence. "Bucca Mario" to be exact. I plan on making this on Valentines Day, with a great crusty bread and a good Italian wine.

    Jan 25, 2010 at 4:50 PM

  • Snooth User: Eric Guido
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    92549 196,467

    Sheylavee & murphoc - glad you both enjoyed this dish. Amazing how simple it really is right? Making sauce was my favorite station when working in restaurants. I always felt it was also the most creative place to be in the kitchen. I would love to just keep giving out sauce recipes but that might get boring after a while.

    However, my next article will involve a sauce but it will be much more intense in time, prep but also flavor. Look for it in the coming weeks because it's one of my all time favorites.

    Jan 25, 2010 at 9:21 PM

  • Snooth User: Fred Z
    152354 31

    Great recipe! We made it tonight substituting local organic bacon for the pancetta. Wonderful wine pairing as well.

    Feb 03, 2010 at 10:02 PM

  • Snooth User: rar8888
    Hand of Snooth
    158026 1,286

    This turned out fantastic!!! Thank you for the great recipe and inspiration.


    Mar 12, 2010 at 4:14 PM

  • Snooth User: Cactus870
    316345 1

    Don't forget Barbaresco, perhaps the finest of all of the Piedmonte wines!

    Apr 20, 2010 at 4:48 PM

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