Like so many Italian dishes enjoyed widely in America, you might assume that penne alla vodka originated straight “off the boat.” But like New York-style pizza and even most iterations of baked ziti, this delectable dish is really more of a hybrid; it’s Americanized Italian food. This of course doesn’t take away from of its deliciousness.
I like to consider myself something of an expert where red sauce and Italian-American cuisine are concerned. My mom was Italian-American — Sicilian, more specifically; and my dad is Jewish. We grew up in the New York area, and I even dated a guy whose family owned a pizzeria. I have enjoyed my fair share of penne alla vodka, as well as tortellini alfredo with peas and ham, mile-high lasagna with crispy edges, and cheesy garlic bread. You know, the list goes on.
What you may not know is that there is some debate about the origins of penne alla vodka. Some say Luigi Franzese created the dish at his New York restaurant Orsini in the 1980s. And yet others say it was invented in Bologna, Italy. Regardless of its country of origin, the dish gained popularity in both America and Italy throughout the 1980s and remains a staple on many restaurant menus today.
It is creamy, decadent comfort food at its best, requiring only a few ingredients. And it’s just the kind of dish my own mother would serve on a Sunday with some extra red sauce, fried eggplant, a chopped salad, and garlic bread. Here’s my favorite recipe for this iconic dish.
- 1/3 cup vodka
- Heaping pinch red pepper flakes
- 1 pound penne pasta
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 1 cup heavy cream
- ¼ cup grated Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese
The night before or a few hours ahead of cooking, add red pepper flakes to 1/3 cup of vodka. Allow to steep.
Cook pasta according to directions in a large pot of salted boiling water.
In a large sauté pan, add olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add onion and sauté 5-7 minutes, until soft and starting to brown.
Add vodka with pepper flakes and stir until reduced slightly.
Add crushed tomatoes and and allow to cook, 5-10 minutes.
Add heavy cream and stir.
After pasta has cooked, drain and add directly into the pan with the sauce. Stir to coat.
Serve in a large bowl and top with grated Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese. Serve with fresh basil or parsley.