Penne alla Vodka

February 17, 2020

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Penne Alla Vodka – perfectly hearty and tender penne pasta is tossed with a creamy and vibrant, San Marzano tomato based and vodka infused sauce that’s seasoned with fresh herbs and parmesan. Talk about delicious dinner recipe!

Other classic Italian-American favorites to add to the dinner rotation include Pasta Primavera, Alfredo Sauce, easy Spaghetti Sauce, and the best Meatball recipe!

Pasta bowl filled with penne tossed with vodka sauce and garnished with fresh basil and oregano. Served with a side of fresh Italian bread.

So what flavor does vodka add to the vodka sauce? Well, since all lot of the alcohol is cooked off you aren’t left with a alcoholic vodka taste, rather it just boosts and intensifies the flavors of the tomatoes.

This easy vodka sauce tastes vibrantly tomatoey, deliciously herby, lightly peppery and faintly smokey if you opt to use pancetta. And with the red pepper flakes it also has an exciting spicy little kick to it on the tip of your tongue.

Then when you finish it with a final enhancement of richly flavored, aged Parmigiano Reggiano and this dish becomes worthy of a fine dining restaurant!

It’s a classic Italian-American recipe that you can perfect at home with just a few easy steps! And this isn’t like a bolognese sauce, no simmering for hours here. You can have this dish ready in about 30 minutes!

Pot full of penne all vodka.

Ingredients Needed for Penne with Vodka Sauce

  • Canned San Marzano tomatoes – these are an Italian grown variety of tomato that have less acidity and better sweetness, I don’t recommend substitutions unless you don’t have access to them. Then go with canned plum/Roma tomatoes and add a pinch or two of sugar.
  • Extra virgin olive oil – don’t use standard refined olive oil here. We want that stronger extra virgin flavor in this dish. It really compliments the tomato flavor.
  • Yellow onion – mince these up fine so they’ll become tender with a brief saute and simmer period.
  • Prosciutto or pancetta – this cured Italian ham is optional but it does add a delicious flavor.
  • Garlic – only use freshly minced for best flavor.
  • Salt and pepper – add to taste but remember the sauce will reduce some so don’t overdue it.
  • Vodka – a must in this recipe. With leftover vodka I like to make homemade vanilla.
  • Red pepper flakes – if you don’t like spicy food you can omit this. If you love spicy double or even triple the amount.
  • Heavy cream – I don’t recommend lower fat substitutions here.
  • Fresh basil and fresh oregano – if you don’t want to purchase both you can use one or the other but I love the blend here. If you have leftover use it to make pizza sauce or marinara.
  • Shredded parmesan cheese – want to add extra flavor to the sauce? Simmer a parmesan rind with the sauce.
  • Penne pasta – cook to al dente and be sure to reserve some of the starchy pasta water before draining, which is used to loosen the sauce as needed.

Ingredients shown that go into penne with vodka sauce.

How to Make Penne alla Vodka

  1. Boil water: Bring a pot of water to a boil to cook pasta. Season water with salt.
  2. Saute aromatics and prosciutto: Heat oil in a separate large pot over medium heat. Add onion and prosciutto, saute 4 – 5 minutes, add garlic and red pepper flakes and saute 1 minute longer.
  3. Add tomatoes and vodka, simmer: Remove pan from heat and add tomatoes, vodka, season with salt and pepper to taste. Return to medium-high heat, bring to a simmer then reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer until strong alcohol scent has cooked off, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Cook pasta: Meanwhile cook pasta according to package directions. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water and drain pasta.
  5. Mix cream, herbs and parmesan into sauce: Stir cream into sauce and let just heat through, about 1 minute. Stir in parmesan, basil and oregano.
  6. Toss vodka sauce and penne: Add drained pasta to pot with sauce, toss to coat, while thinning sauce with a little pasta water as needed. Serve warm with more parmesan and garnish with more basil if desired.

Steps showing how to make vodka sauce and tossing with penne pasta at the end.

Tips for the Best Vodka Sauce

  • Use good quality ingredients. It will only taste as good as what you put into it.
  • Be sure to let it simmer long enough to cook off most of the alcohol or you’ll taste alcohol and it will really overpower the dish.
  • Crush tomatoes fine for a smoother, less chunky sauce. If preferred you could even blitz them in a food processor.
  • Don’t use dried herbs or bottled garlic. These fresh ingredients really help make this vodka sauce perfect.

Pot full of homemade vodka sauce.

Can I Freeze Vodka Sauce?

Yes. This can be frozen in an airtight container for up to 3 months. Or it will keep in the fridge for about 3 – 4 days.

Two servings of penne alla vodka in grey serving bowls set over wooden plates.

Possible Variations

  • Add grilled chicken or rotisserie chicken.
  • Sub bacon for the pancetta, it has a different flavor but who doesn’t love bacon?
  • Skip the pancetta, add browned ground veal, beef, pork or Italian sausage.
  • Add shrimp, another delicious pairing option.
  • Try substituting it in place of marinara sauce in a dish like lasagna or chicken parmesan.
  • Use another pasta in place of penne such as rigatoni, ziti, mostaccioli, elicoidali, fusilli, or even just go with spaghetti. Really just about any pasta would work.

Overhead image of penne alla vodka in a large pot.

What Sides to Serve with Creamy Penne alla Vodka?

Penne alla Vodka
5 from 21 votes

Penne alla Vodka (Best Vodka Sauce!)

Perfectly hearty and tender penne pasta is tossed with a creamy and vibrant, San Marzano tomato based and vodka infused sauce that's seasoned with fresh herbs and parmesan. Talk about delicious dinner recipe!
Servings: 6
Prep20 minutes
Cook30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 (28 oz) can San Marzano tomatoes, crushed finely with hands*
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup minced yellow onion
  • 3 oz. proscuitto or pancetta, diced (optional)
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic (3 cloves)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup vodka
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, more or less to taste
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup finely shredded parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
  • 1 Tbsp chopped fresh oregano
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 14 oz. penne pasta, plus reserved pasta water for thinning sauce as needed

Instructions

  • Bring a pot of water to a boil to cook pasta. Season water with salt.
  • Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and prosciutto saute 4 - 5 minutes, add garlic and red pepper flakes and saute 1 minute longer.
  • Remove pan from heat and add tomatoes, vodka, season with salt and pepper to taste. Return to medium-high heat, bring to a simmer then reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer until strong alcohol scent has cooked off, about 15 minutes**, stirring occasionally.
  • Meanwhile cook pasta according to package directions. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water and drain pasta.
  • Stir cream into sauce and let just heat through, about 1 minute. Stir in parmesan, basil and oregano.
  • Add drained pasta to pot with sauce, toss to coat, while thinning sauce with a little pasta water as needed. Serve warm with more parmesan and garnish with more basil if desired.

Notes

  • *For a smoother sauce you can blitz the tomatoes in a food processor or buy crushed San Marzano tomatoes if you can find them.
  • **Be sure to allow enough time for sauce simmer or it will taste strongly of alcohol and that will overpower the flavors of the dish.
  • Sauce can be frozen up to 3 months.
Nutrition Facts
Penne alla Vodka (Best Vodka Sauce!)
Amount Per Serving
Calories 527 Calories from Fat 198
% Daily Value*
Fat 22g34%
Saturated Fat 10g63%
Cholesterol 48mg16%
Sodium 366mg16%
Potassium 455mg13%
Carbohydrates 57g19%
Fiber 4g17%
Sugar 5g6%
Protein 12g24%
Vitamin A 668IU13%
Vitamin C 13mg16%
Calcium 139mg14%
Iron 3mg17%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.
Nutrition values are estimates only. See full disclaimer here.

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59 Comments

  • Marilyn

    I was all set to make this recipe but all I have is vanilla vodka. Can that be used in place of regular vodka?

    • Jaclyn

      Jaclyn Bell

      I wouldn’t recommend it it would impart a sweet unwelcome flavor here unfortunately.

  • Jessica

    This was a great recipe! Thank you. My daughter and I followed your recipe to a “T” and it came out great. This was better than any restaurant dish I’ve had.

  • Sarah

    OH. MY. WORD. I made this for me and my husband this weekend and we haven’t stopped talking about how good this sauce is for 3 days!! I’m currently figuring out all the backups/copies of this recipe I need to save in case of an apocalyptic situation, I can still make sure i have this recipe stored somewhere😂. Seriously, this is so good. So SO good. This is my new go-to for when entertaining, as the sauce can be made ahead and just kept warm/re-heated on the stove waiting for the guests to arrive. I used bacon instead of pancetta and Kraft grated parmesan and it was still incredible. We couldn’t believe it wasn’t take out from an Italian restaurant! Thank you for this recipe!!

  • Annie Nicole

    Amazing recipe! Thank you so much! I’m not into tomato sauces but this one is just exceptional, I would easily cook it for Italian friends! Delicious! Thank you for all the tips!

  • Chris Seckler

    I made this Tonight! Spot on Amazing! My Family Loved it! Will Definitely make it Again! Thanks so much ! So Tasty! I Loved the addition of Prosciutto! Adds amazing Flavor! This was a Winner, Winner what’s for Dinner? ❤️

  • Gaby Coppernoll

    The recipe is great but there’s one major error. You say prosciutto often but you mean Pancetta! You even say Pancetta later in the recipe. Even stranger you photographed prosciutto. Prosciutto is NEVER meant to be cooked or come in contact with heat – it ruins it. There’s a reason it’s sliced paper-thin – it is meant to be eaten as charcuterie only. The heat from your own body (mouth) melts the fat. Pancetta is Italian bacon and is meant to use in recipes to add smokey pork flavor much in the way Americans use bacon. It can stand up to heat. Please correct this.

    • Jaclyn

      Jaclyn Bell

      You can use either/or in the recipe I have tested both with great success. But of course feel free to use whichever you prefer.