Penne Alla Vodka

published Mar 8, 2024
Penne alla Vodka Recipe

For the best penne alla vodka you’ll ever make, the secret’s in the sauce.

Serves4 to 6

Prep10 minutes

Cook25 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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overhead shot of penne alla vodka in a pan with a wooden spoon resting inside.
Credit: Photo: Vicky Wasik ; Food Stylist: Rachel Perlmutter

Drawing from my family’s recipe collection, this rendition of penne alla vodka captures the essence of New Jersey Italian American cooking. Here, a blend of simple ingredients — tomatoes, vodka, heavy cream, and Parmesan cheese — makes this creamy red sauce irresistible. But, the secret to the best vodka sauce? Using both whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes and double concentrated tomato paste from a tube. Together, they create a rich, flavorful base unmatched by using either one alone. 

Even if you’re not a fan of vodka, you’ll love this sauce. It subtly enhances the overall dish, bringing out so much flavor in the tomatoes. My adaptation pays homage to the silky sauce that has become a staple in countless Italian restaurants — and now it can be a staple in your home too. 

Why You’ll Love this Recipe

  • My homemade vodka sauce rivals anything you can order from a restaurant restaurant. It’s perfectly creamy (thanks to plenty of cream!) and has just the right texture, thanks to the whole peeled tomatoes.
  • It comes together quickly! Prep is minimal and cook time is less than 30 minutes.

Key Ingredients in Penne alla Vodka

With just a few key ingredients, it’s important to pick the best.

  • Tomatoes: Whole peeled tomatoes thicken and extend the sauce so each bite of penne is nicely coated, while the tomato paste adds a rich, fruity depth of flavor that you can’t get with whole peeled tomatoes alone.
  • Vodka: Enhances the natural richness of the tomatoes. Opt for a high-quality vodka — the kind you’d enjoy in a classic martini. Cheaper opinions have a harsher flavor, which will come through in the sauce.
  • Heavy cream: A generous amount of heavy cream is a must for vodka sauce. It’s what gives the sauce balance and its signature rich and velvety texture, so don’t skimp here.
  • Penne: Its short shape and ridges help the sauce cling to the pasta. Rigatoni is a great option if you don’t have penne.
  • Parmesan: Stir in freshly grated Parmesan just before serving to add depth and enhance the creaminess of the sauce. For the best flavor, grate your own instead of buying the pre-grated kind, which is never as nutty and flavorful.
Credit: Photo: Vicky Wasik ; Food Stylist: Rachel Perlmutter

How to Make Penne alla Vodka

Penne alla vodka is a simple sauce. It doesn’t require a long simmer on the stovetop, so you pretty much make the sauce and have it ready to go in the same time it takes to boil water and pasta.

  1. Boil the penne. Cook the penne in a large pot of heavily salted water per package instructions and remember to set aside 1 cup of the pasta cooking water before draining. 
  2. Cook the tomato sauce. Start by making a red sauce with a base of onion, garlic, tomato paste, whole peeled tomatoes, and vodka. Use a wooden spoon or, my favorite tool, a potato masher to mash the whole peeled tomatoes into little bits when you add them. Then, simmer the sauce until it thickens just a bit.
  3. Blend the sauce. For a creamy sauce, blend the tomato sauce with a generous amount of heavy cream. If you like a chunkier sauce, skip the blending. In my family, we leave the sauce chunky, so it can go either way.
  4. Toss in the pasta and cheese. Pour the sauce back into the skillet and add the cooked penne pasta, grated Parmesan cheese, and pasta water. Toss it over high heat until the pasta is nicely coated. 
  5. Enjoy! Finish each bowl with more Parmesan, basil, and black pepper (or red pepper flakes) for a beautiful presentation, and serve right away.

Storage and Make-Ahead Tips

Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to five days. Cream-based sauces can separate a bit if they are reheated over high heat or for too long. To reheat, rewarm leftover pasta in a skillet or pot on the stovetop over medium heat, splashing in a bit of extra heavy cream or water to help loosen the sauce or on a lower power in the microwave in a microwave-safe dish.

What to Serve with Penne alla Vodka

Serve penne alla vodka right alongside your favorite side dishes. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Penne alla Vodka Recipe

For the best penne alla vodka you’ll ever make, the secret’s in the sauce.

Prep time 10 minutes

Cook time 25 minutes

Serves 4 to 6

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces

    Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 cup store-bought grated), plus more for serving, if desired

  • 1

    medium yellow onion

  • 3

    cloves garlic

  • 2 tablespoons

    olive oil

  • 1/3 cup

    double concentrated tomato paste (from a tube)

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    red pepper flakes, plus more for serving

  • 1

    (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano

  • 1/2 cup

    vodka

  • 3/4 teaspoon

    kosher salt, plus more as needed

  • 1 pound

    dried penne rigate or penne pasta

  • 4

    sprigs fresh basil

  • 1/2 cup

    heavy cream

  • Freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, finely grate 2 ounces Parmesan cheese (1/2 packed cup), or measure out 1/2 cup store-bought grated. Finely chop 1 medium yellow onion (1 1/2 cups) and 3 garlic cloves. Start cooking the sauce.

  2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large high-sided skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until just starting to turn golden-brown, about 4 minutes. Add 1/3 cup tomato paste and 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes and cook, stirring often, until lightly toasted, about 2 minutes.

  3. Add 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes and its juices, 1/2 cup vodka, and 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt. Using a wooden spoon or potato masher, break up the tomatoes into small bits. Bring to a simmer.

  4. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until thickened, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, add 1 pound penne pasta to the boiling water and cook according to the package directions until just al dente, 9 to 11 minutes. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water, then drain. Meanwhile, pick the leaves from 4 fresh basil sprigs and thinly slice.

  5. Scrape the sauce into a blender. Blend until smooth, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add 1/2 cup heavy cream and pulse until just combined, about 10 (1-second) pulses. (Alternatively, blend the sauce directly in the skillet with an immersion blender, then add the cream and stir until just combined.)

  6. Return the sauce to the skillet. Add the pasta, Parmesan, and 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Cook over high heat, tossing constantly, until the penne is coated with sauce, about 4 minutes. Add more pasta water 1 tablespoon at a time as needed if the sauce is too thick.

  7. Turn off the heat. Taste and season with more kosher salt and black pepper as needed. Serve topped with the basil, more grated Parmesan cheese, and a few grinds of black pepper or red pepper flakes if desired.

Recipe Notes

Sauce variation: If you prefer a chunkier sauce, skip blending and just add the cream and remaining ingredients to the skillet.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.