Dish of the Week: Penne alla Vodka

From classic comfort foods to regional standouts and desserts, we'll be sharing a new recipe with you each week. Find other dishes of the week here.

This week, we’re taking a trip to Italy (or at least to Little Italy) with the perfect cold-weather comfort food: penne alla vodka.

Penne alla vodka is an Italian-American pasta dish made with penne, a cylinder-shaped pasta with a hollow center, and vodka sauce, a thick, creamy tomato sauce made with crushed tomatoes, heavy cream and a kick of vodka.

The vodka functions as a sort of sugar, enchancing the flavors of the tomato and bringing out a sharp bite to balance out the sweetness, and as an emulsifier, keeping the acidic tomato and oils from the heavy cream from separating.

While penne or penne rigate (a penne that is ridged or furrowed) are traditionally found married with vodka sauce, any type of pasta can be used, from rigatoni to tagliatelle. Pasta doesn’t even need to be incorporated at all, as the creamy sauce makes a great base for pizza and can be substituted for regular tomato sauce to make an über-gluttonous chicken parmigiana.

The sauce itself has many variations as well. Additions can include garlic and onions, fresh basil or parsley, sausage, chicken, shrimp, scallop, pancetta, prosciutto or bacon, crushed red pepper, peas, mascarpone, and, of course, Parmigiano-Reggiano.

This recipe, from Mario Batali, incorporates bacon, garlic and a pinch of nutmeg. Feel free to add or subtract ingredients as desired.

Penne alla Vodka

Ingredients serves 6
1 pound penne pasta
6 slices bacon (chopped)
2 cloves garlic (thinly sliced)
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/4 cup vodka
1/2 cup heavy cream
pinch nutmeg
2-3 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano (for garnish)
Kosher salt (to taste)


Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook penne 1 minute short of the package instructions. Drain, reserving some pasta water for sauce.

In a large sauté pan, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp, about 6-8 minutes. Add the garlic and tomato paste and cook until garlic is fragrant and tomato paste begins to caramelize, about 3 minutes more.

Stir in the vodka and allow the sauce to reduce by half. Add the cream and season with nutmeg and salt to taste. Adjust the thickness of sauce with pasta water as needed.

Add cooked penne and some reserved pasta water and toss to coat.

Serve with a generous sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
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Brooke Viggiano is a contributing writer who is always looking to share Houston's coolest and tastiest happenings with the Houston Press readers.
Contact: Brooke Viggiano