Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fine Dining Any Day? Penne alla Vodka

With a perfect pairing to match!
A recipe & pairing by: Eric Guido

I've posted quite a few 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.

Rule of thumb: If you're not willing
to drink it, don't cook with it.
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!

See the Tasting Note Below
As for the wine, pairing with this dish can be tricky. It's a rich, cream based, tomato sauce so you'd think that any high acid red would do the trick. However, there's a spiciness to this dish that would react badly to anything high in tannin or alcohol. This led me to think of Sangiovese, but not just any Sangiovese, something from a warmer climate than the typical Chianti. This train of thought brought me to the Maremma and Morellino di Scansano. Add in the garnish of pancetta, which is a great accompaniment to oak influence, and you have Morellino di Scansano Riserva.

This is truly fine dinning in your home without the price tag or the hassle. Enjoy!


Penne alla Vodka
Serves 4 - 5 guests

A note on the ingredients: Try to find San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy. Believe it or not there are domestic brands that try to trick you with tomatoes of inferior quality and a completely different taste. Also, using penne “rigate” (instead of regular penne) is important because the texture holds the sauce to the penne. Lastly, an entire bottle of vodka is not included in the cost of the recipe and since it is only a ¼ cup, use the good stuff if you’ve got it. Remember, your food is primarily the sum of your ingredients.

28 oz can San Marzano tomatoes
5 cloves minced garlic
½ cup yellow onion cut into fine dice
½ cup pancetta small dice
¼ cup vodka
¾ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1 cup heavy cream
1 - 2 tbls olive oil
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (depending on your preference for spice)
1 pound penne rigate
8 fresh basil leaves cut chiffonade (This should not be done until the end of the cooking process.)
salt and pepper

While bringing a pot of salted water to a boil, measure out and prepare your ingredients.

Pour the tomatoes into a bowl and, with your hands, break up the tomatoes into small pieces. Remove any skins if they were left on the tomatoes.

In a large saucepan, pour in olive oil and set to medium flame. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the pancetta and cook until browned (about 4 minutes). Remove the pancetta from the pan and reserve as a garnish for later.

Add the onion and garlic to the pan and season well with salt. It is also at this time that you should add the pasta to the boiling water and set the timer for 1 minute short of the recommended cooking time. Cook the onion and garlic until translucent (about 2 minutes).

Raise heat to medium high, add the red pepper flakes to the pan and stir. Pull the pan from the stove (away from the flame) and add the vodka. Place back on the stove and add the tomatoes. Stir well to combine.

You should stir regularly as the sauce cooks over the medium high flame. Make sure that it does not begin to burn on the pan bottom. If the sauce appears to be reducing too quickly, lower the flame to medium.

About the same time that the pasta is done, add the cream to the sauce and stir to combine. Season the vodka sauce with salt and pepper to taste. Drain your pasta completely and quickly rinse out the pot and dry.

Pour the pasta back into the pot and add ½ cup of the grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and half of the brown pancetta. Stir them into the pasta and then pour the sauce into the pot. Move the pot onto a medium flame and continue cooking for one minute. Remove from the heat and stir well.

Allow the pasta and sauce to sit in the pot for two more minutes, stirring from time to time. This allows the pasta to absorb and integrate with the sauce. While the pasta is resting, cut your basil.

Stir one last time and ladle the pasta onto warmed plates. Dress with basil chiffonade, browned pancetta and a sprinkle of grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Clean the rims of your plates with a warm, moist towel and serve.



2008 Mantellassi Morellino di Scansano Riserva Le Sentinelle - The nose showed intense black cherry with a dusting of sweet spice and purple and blue floral tones with an earthy, mineral core. On the palate it was velvety and rich with ripe dark fruits, yet juicy throughout, showing off it’s brisk Sangiovese acidity. Notes of plum, cocoa, spiced apple and lavender, all made an appearance and lasted through the finish, with silky tannins, which were nearly imperceptible. This wine was suave and poised, with just enough structure to keep me coming back for more. (92 points) Find it on: Wine-Searcher!

3 comments:

  1. You're on a roll Eric. Between this and the meatball recipe I feel like you could bring checkered tablecloths and Chianti fiascos back in style. Can't wait to try this one.

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  2. Thanks Keith, and great to hear from you. There's nothing like sharing the food you were raised on with people interested in hearing about it. I will admit to having changed many of these recipes to fit modern tastes and higher standards of the restaurant environment, but in the end it's all Italian comfort food.

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  3. This was my first time cooking and eating penne alla vodka. It was excellent. I added a small amount of oregano and a splash of red wine. Thank you. I will be making this again.

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