"Skip the restaurant and make the best penne alla vodka at home. This recipe has enough tomato to give the sauce a nice kick without overpowering the cream!"
It’s officially 2016 (Happy New Year, by the way!) and I’m bringing you one of my all-time favorite dishes:
The BEST penne alla vodka recipe I’ve managed to stumble across.
Yes, I did say the BEST – or at least, in my humble opinion it is.
A little backstory: The Husband and I love finding restaurants that not only have good food (my requirement) but also good service (his requirement). We’ve lived in the area long enough that we have a short list of favorite establishments, and one of those restaurants was an absolutely perfect hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant. The food was always amazingly good (so I was happy) and the wait staff treated us like royalty, serving us complimentary garlic bread when we showed up and free shots of limoncello before we left (so he was happy).
But then the unthinkable happened: the owner moved to Virginia, leaving the fate of the restaurant in his parent’s care.
However, “care” isn’t really the word I would use to describe it, because once his parents had the reigns they quickly began changing everything we’d grown to love about the restaurant over the past three years.
The menu was kept the same, but they fired all the chefs and hired cheaper (ie less seasoned) chefs to work in the kitchen.
They also swapped out all the wait staff from the charming older gentlemen we had come to know to young girls who apparently couldn’t care less about anything other than who was texting them on their phones.
It was a downright mess, and we went from visiting this restaurant a couple times a month to only braving the experience three times in the past year.
Usually we would just chalk this up to the end of an era and work on finding another Italian restaurant to call our own… but there was only one problem: this restaurant still held the secret to my all-time favorite vodka sauce. Thankfully the new chefs were able to prepare it the same way as they did under the son’s ownership, but with the quality of service going down like it did, I was no longer able to convince The Husband to accompany me to get my vodka sauce fix.
I found myself going months without my beloved vodka sauce, and you know what? I couldn’t take it. The foodie in me was rebelling (and kicking and crying and screaming).
So I did the only thing I could do: I made it my mission to find a suitable vodka sauce replacement.
I began searching on Google and Pinterest and even Facebook, hoping to find some vodka sauce expert on the interwebs that could lead me on the path to culinary glory…. but in the end, every last one of them failed me harder than Starscream (please tell me you got that reference!) I can’t tell you how many recipes I tried that claimed they were “restaurant quality” but ended up tasting more like tart marinara than my beloved vodka sauce. I was beginning to loose hope.
… That is, until I stumbled across the true secret. Good vodka sauce does not use plain old tomato sauce or paste, and you should turn your nose up at anyone who tells you otherwise (Pioneer Woman, I’m looking at you!) So that being said, what should you be using for quality alla vodka? Italian plum tomatoes. You can use canned, and if they’re not already with the canned veggies in your grocery store then they’re typically with the international and/or Italian foods. This is what you need to buy for excellent vodka sauce. No exceptions.
Trust me, it’s worth it.
The flavor was spot on, with just enough tomato to give the sauce a kick and yet not so much that it completely overpowered the cream and the hint of simmered vodka. I made this with penne, but I can’t wait to try it on gnocchi and ravioli and… well, pretty much anything that’s good with sauce. Now that I can have this sauce multiple times a month again, I plan to get creative!
I’m sure we’ll still visit our once-favorite Italian restaurant once in a while, since they do still have fantastic sangria and limoncello. But if the cravings get to be too much, I might just have to crack the recipes for those, too!
Penne alla Vodka
- 1 lb penne pasta
- 35 oz Italian plum tomatoes *
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp garlic minced
- 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 pinch salt to taste
- 1 pinch pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup vodka
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter or olive oil
- 2 tbsp parsley fresh and chopped
- 3/4 cup parmesan cheese grated, plus more for garnish
- Prepare penne pasta per package instructions. Drain pasta and set aside. Prepare the sauce while pasta is cooking.
- Add Italian plum tomatoes (and their liquid) to a food processor and pulse until sauce is smooth. Set aside.
- Add extra-virgin olive oil to a skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add garlic to skillet and cool until garlic is golden brown, about 2-3 minutes.
- Slowly pour tomato sauce into skillet, stirring to incorporate with the oil. Also stir in crushed red pepper flakes and season with salt and pepper to taste. Let sauce simmer for 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add vodka to tomato sauce and stir. Bring heat down to a simmer and let cook for about 10 minutes.
- Add butter to sauce and stir until melted.
- Pour in heavy cream and parmesan cheese, stirring sauce well.
- Fold in cooked penne pasta. If desired, continue to cook pasta for another 5 minutes so sauce clings to pasta.
- Serve pasta immediately with extra parmesan cheese and chopped parsley as garnish.