Is Penne Alla Vodka (also known as “pasta with pink sauce”) American or Italian?
Some say of course it’s Italian! Why else would it be served in every chain Italian restaurant? Some insist the recipe was created at Dante, a restaurant in Bologna, Italy.
Others say baloney, Penne Alla Vodka is about as Italian as a pepperoni pizza with roasted pineapple, extra cheese, and a double-stuffed crust. They credit the Orsini restaurant in New York City, or a vodka distributor who wanted to increase sales.
My ex Italian boyfriend (by ex, I mean he’s still Italian, just no longer my boyfriend) insisted the original concept was Italian – a simple, delicate dish of tomatoes, vodka, milk or cream, and parsley. Then Americans took over (as Americans tend to do) and added cheeses, fatty meats like sausage, bacon, or prosciutto, and finally topped it off with an extra drizzle of butter and Parmesan cheese before serving. Of course, all that artery-clogging fat overpowered the bright note of the vodka and the delicate taste of parsley, so stronger herbs needed to be used – basil and oregano. The resulting pasta sauce hardly resembled the vegetarian version my ex claimed was “authentic.”
This is my vegan version of his “authentic” Penne Alla Vodka. You’ll be surprised how light and sweet it is – the milk reduces the acidity of the tomatoes, the vodka adds a bit of brightness and brings out the tomatoes’ sweetness, and the parsley adds freshness and more sweetness. A dash of red pepper flakes keeps things interesting.
If you’ve never had vodka sauce before – don’t worry, it doesn’t taste anything like vodka. Repeat: You should not be able to taste the vodka in a good vodka sauce. If made correctly, all the alcohol should “burn” off while cooking, so you don’t have to worry about Great Aunt Matilda getting tipsy and sliding under the table. (Always so awkward when that happens.)
Gluten Free People: Be careful! Be sure to use a potato vodka instead of a grain-based vodka. And, of course, use rice pasta or some other gluten-free pasta.
Ingredients for Penne Alla Vodka
1 TBL Olive Oil (more if needed)
1 Onion, finely diced
4 Cloves Garlic, minced or pressed
1 28-oz can Diced Tomatoes (or you could use one 14 oz. can diced and one 14 oz. can crushed)
1/4 Cup Vodka
1/8 – 1/4 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
1 Cup Unsweetened Vegan Cooking Milk, full fat (I use WestSoy Organic Unsweetened Plain)
1 Large Handful Fresh Parsley, coarsely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
Sea Salt, to taste
Cooked Penne Pasta (or any other pasta noodle of your choice; penne is traditional)
Directions for Vegan Penne Alla Vodka
Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add onion and saute for 2-3 minutes. Add garlic and saute for another 2-3 minutes. Add more olive oil, if needed, to keep the onions and garlic from burning.
Add the tomatoes, vodka, and red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. (Warning: Your kitchen will smell like a distillery for a minute or two. Avoid tasting the sauce at this point – wait until the alcohol cooks off.)
Add milk and parsley. The milk will cool the sauce off – continue cooking over low-to-medium heat until the sauce is warmed through again and the parsley has slightly wilted.
Salt to taste.
Serve over pasta.
I’ve seen recipes call for adding the vodka towards the end – even, just before serving! Avoid this. One, the vodka won’t have enough time to temper the acidity of the tomatoes. Two, the alcohol won’t have a chance to cook off. Your sauce will be intoxicating, and not in a good way. Might as well just serve your family and friends Bloody Marys and call it a day.
Beware of using a vegan creamer instead of vegan milk. The vast majority of vegan creamers are sweetened, which won’t work in this recipe.
Frugal vegan? If you don’t normally drink or serve vodka, purchase a single-serving, “airplane” bottle of vodka from your liquor store. Most brands of vodka are vegan – you can double-check your purchase by visiting barnivore.com.
Can you make this without vodka? Absolutely. It’ll taste different, but it will still be a tasty sauce. Sub 1/4 cup red or white wine instead of the vodka, or a tablespoon of red or white wine vinegar.