If my ex-boyfriend North had his way, he would have eaten Penne alla Vodka for every meal. No matter what the venue—New York diner, upscale Italian restaurant, or our college dining hall—he would try to order this pasta dish, and amazingly enough, most of the time he got his way.
I’ve never been one for depriving myself of rich, indulgent food. But somehow I drew the line at Penne alla Vodka. Even though I would sneak bites off North’s plate, to this day, it reminds me more of a stomachache than a delicious meal. (And that has nothing to do with the relationship. Swear.) It’s a pretty simple and irresistible formula—the comfort food equivalent of mac and cheese for Italian Americans. And yet, as with many simple dishes that require good quality ingredients to make them sing, many times my forkful would be so, so bad; the pasta overcooked, the sauce gloppy and gravy-like, and the Parmesan grated in a factory two years ago.
One of the perks of Penne alla Vodka is that it’s comforting and quick. Anyone, diners and dining halls included, are likely to have the ingredients and skill with which to whip up a batch. And even if it’s terrible, something about the comfort factor means, like North, you’re likely not to care.
But if I’m going to go all out and eat a cup of cream and a bowl of pasta at the same time, it better be worth it.
In preparation for my own foray into Penne alla Vodka, I came across Lidia Bastianich’s recipe on google again and again. It requires whole tomatoes, pureed in a food processor, and whole garlic cloves, browned and then fished out at the end of cooking. I tried it out using sub-par canned tomatoes from the local Martha’s Vineyard grocery store (use San Marzano if you go this route). The result was just okay. If my ingredients had been better, this might not have been the case. But if Penne alla Vodka is going to be a foolproof go-to, weeknight meal, the kind that even the master of Penne alla Vodka himself could whip up, then I wanted the simplest recipe possible.
So, I turned to Giada.
I don’t usually advocate using store bought marinara sauce, but in the case of a dish that you really want to be efficient and easy, I say go for it (see: deconstructed eggplant parm). This recipe, inspired by Giada’s and amped up with the addition of red chili flakes at the beginning, is exactly what Penne alla Vodka should be: quick and comforting. If only I had learned how to make it four years ago, I could have saved myself many a mediocre (stolen) forkful.
From my kitchen, perfecting Italian-American comfort food, to yours,
Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Penne alla Vodka (Gluten-Free)
Makes 4 servings
You really want to use good ingredients here. Make sure the marinara sauce is from a brand you trust. I like San Marzano or Rao’s. The vodka, on the other hand, can be anything you have lying around from your last party.
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon red chili flakes
1 quart marinara sauce
1/2 cup vodka
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese (plus more for serving)
8 basil leaves, julienned (optional)
1 pound penne pasta (brown rice if you’re GF)
In a large saucepan, heat the oil over a medium flame. Add the chili flakes and cook until just sizzling, about 2 minutes. Carefully pour in the tomatoes and the vodka. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium low. Cook, stirring consistently, for 10 – 15 minutes, until reduced. Stir in the cream, Parmesan, and half the basil (if using), and cook until the cheese has melted and the whole sauce is luscious and pink.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook the pasta according to package instructions until al dente. Drain the pasta in a colander, or transfer to the sauce using a slotted spoon. Toss with the sauce until combined. Cook for another minute. Then garnish with the remaining basil, and few shreds of Parmesan, and serve alongside the extra block of cheese for grating.
NOTE: the sauce can be made in advance. If it is too thick, add 1/4 cup of pasta water to thin it slightly when you toss it with the pasta.