The origins of Penne alla Vodka are shrouded in mystery. However, it’s generally agreed that this dish took off in Italy during the 70’s where it was a popular dish at discothèques—especially in la Riviera Romagnola beachside towns. It’s become an extremely popular dish worldwide, especially in the United States. There is no ‘traditional’ way to make this pasta dish. Here, we show our Penne alla Vodka recipe with pancetta which takes inspiration from the Roman Spaghetti Amatriciana pasta recipe. There, guanciale and onions are used to flavor the tomato sauce.
Why the vodka? Some sources erroneously claim that the alcohol in vodka acts as an emulsifier to help the watery tomato and fatty cream blend into a creamy sauce. However, vodka is not an emulsifier. What the alcohol in the vodka does do is help to release aromas and flavors in the tomato and other ingredients that are not otherwise perceptible to the palate. And mamma mia… does it deliver! Seriously, this sauce is amazing.
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Penne alla Vodka: 2 WAYS!
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How to Make Penne alla Vodka
Our Penne alla Vodka recipe with pancetta (AKA “Italian Bacon”) is a very easy dish to make. Here are the ingredients:
- pancetta (Italian bacon)
- onion: we use red, but yellow will work as well as shallots
- tomato purée (‘passata’): this is a smooth and very sweet product if you choose the right brand
- heavy cream
- penne: smooth or ‘rigate’ (with ridges)
- dry or fresh chili pepper to taste (optional)
- fine salt to taste
Here are a few additional tips for choosing the best quality ingredients.
What is Pancetta vs Bacon?
Pancetta is pork belly cured with salt, pepper and spices. Unlike bacon (also pork belly) it is never smoked. We prefer to buy our pancetta in slices like thick-cut bacon for this recipe. Then, we slice them into strips. These thinner pieces of pancetta still impart wonderful flavor to the sauce, but aren’t as opinionated as thicker pancetta and guanciale are. You won’t finding yourself chewing chunks of pancetta.
You can use bacon if you prefer it.
Choose Sweet Tomato Products
We never want to use acidic tomatoes to make Italian recipes. However, here it is extra important that the tomato be sweet. Super acidic tomato could cause the heavy cream to curdle a bit, compromising our efforts to make a creamy sauce.
Choose tomato purée (or Italian products that say passata) if you can find a brand that is sweet and made from San Marzano tomatoes.
We almost always reach for Mutti Passata for this kind of sauce. You can find it on Amazon: https://amzn.to/48JNXP8 (affiliate link)
If you don’t have a brand of tomato purée that you trust to be sweet, it is better to buy whole canned tomatoes (again, preferably San Marzano). Remove the seeds and water from the inside of the tomatoes and discard. Then blend the tomatoes into a smooth purée and use that. This is an Italian secret. Italians know that whole canned tomatoes tend to be sweeter than chopped or even some brands of purée.
Check out our article on Best Canned Tomatoes for Sauce!
Prep the Pancetta and Onions (and maybe the Tomatoes)
Mince the onion and slice the pancetta into strips. If you are blending whole canned tomatoes to make the tomato sauce, remove the seeds and water and blend the pulp to a smooth purée. That’s it! Pretty easy prep.
Here we are using our Nakano Mito Santoku knife to cut up the onions and pancetta. If you or someone you know are due for a knife upgrade, you can use our affiliate discount code for 🌟 10% off 🌟
🌟 DISCOUNT CODE: Go to https://nakano-knives.com/piattorecipes and use the discount code ‘piattorecipes’ at checkout to get this knife or another Nakano product for 10% off! 🌟
Fry the Pancetta
Fry the pancetta over medium heat in a dry pan until golden.
Add half of the vodka to deglaze the pan and release the pancetta fat from the bottom of the pan so it can flavor our sauce.
Sauté the Onions
Add all of the onions and dry chili pepper to taste (optional). We add about a pinch. This isn’t an Angry Penne, so the goal isn’t to make it super spicy.
Add the Tomato and Vodka
Once the onions are tender and translucent, it’s time to add the sweet tomato sauce…
Mix in the Cream
Lower the heat and stir in the heavy cream.. and the vodka! We left half of the vodka to mix with the tomato and cream in order to maximize the alcohol’s ability to extract those hidden tomato flavors. When we deglaze with the vodka, the alcohol is almost immediately burnt off.
Mix the sauce somewhat vigorously right before adding the cooked pasta. Why? We have no emulsifiers in this. Mixing vigorously is one way to blend the cream, bacon grease and tomato into a smooth sauce for the final dish.
Add the drained pasta (cooked to al dente) and quickly combine everything together. Serve!
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Penne alla Vodka Recipe with Pancetta
- 1 pan or skillet large
- 1 Large Pot for cooking the pasta
- 18 oz tomato purée or 'passata'
- .4 cups heavy cream
- 7 oz pancetta cut into strips
- 1 small onion yellow or red; minced
- 2 shots vodka
- 1 tbsp olive oil if needed
- 1 pinch fine salt or to taste
- ¼ tsp red chili pepper (optional) or to taste
- 11 oz penne or rigatoni
Prep the Ingredients
- Mince the onion.1 small onion
- Slice the pancetta into strips.7 oz pancetta
- If using whole canned tomatoes for the tomato purée, open each one up and discard the water and seeds. Then blend the pulp to a smooth purée.
Fry the Pancetta
- Fry the pancetta over medium heat in a dry pan until golden. If the pancetta you are using gives off too little fat, you can add a tbsp of olive oil before adding the onion.1 tbsp olive oil
- Add half of the vodka to deglaze the pan and release the pancetta fat from the bottom of the pan so it can flavor our sauce.2 shots vodka
Sauté the Onions
- Add the minced onions and dry chili pepper to taste (optional). We add about a pinch. Cook the onions over low heat under they are tender and translucent.¼ tsp red chili pepper
- While the onions cook, add the pasta to salted, boiling water. Cook the pasta according to the package instructions for 'al dente' pasta.11 oz penne
Add the Tomatoes, Cream and More Vodka
- Once the onions are tender and translucent, it’s time to add the sweet tomato sauce.18 oz tomato purée
- Lower the heat and stir in the heavy cream.4 cups heavy cream
- .. and the vodka!
- Cook for a few minutes to blend and heat the ingredients.Mix the sauce somewhat vigorously right before adding the cooked pasta. Why? We have no emulsifiers in this. Mixing vigorously is one way to blend the cream, bacon grease and tomato into a smooth sauce for the final dish. Salt to taste.1 pinch fine salt
Finish with Penne
- Add the drained pasta (cooked to al dente) and quickly combine everything together. Serve!
- Buon appetito!