I suppose it is obvious that a recipe that wantonly chucks the World’s most notoriously alcoholic drink into a kids’ pasta dish is going to have many claimants to its invention. Penna alla vodka, which adds cryptoculinary vodka to a basic tomato pasta sauce, is just that dish. Here are the suspects:
- Ugo Tognazzi. In 1974, Cremona-born actor, director, screenwriter and star of Barbarella, Ugo Tognazzi, wrote his cook book L’Abbuffone, which included pasta all’infuriata – a dish of penne, chilli and a shot of vodka.
- Dante. Dante was a restaurant in Bologna, Italy. The idea that it invented penne alla vodka was set out by Pasquale Bruno Jr. in his 1997 work The Ultimate Pasta Cookbook.
- James Doty. A Columbia University graduate has been cited by some food historians as the inventor of penne alla vodka.
- Luigi Franzese, the Italian American chef of Orsini Restaurant in New York has been credited with the dish. In his hands, it was called penne alla Russa.
- Marketing dickheads. Some say that penne alla vodka was invented by a chef in Rome at the request of a vodka company who wanted to make their liquor more appealing to Italians.
The synthesis of the invention theories for penne alla vodka suggest that it is an American-Italian dish, and it certainly true that the dish has greatest traction in the USA. European may be surprised to learn that after spaghetti Bolognese, penne alla vodka is the second most searched-for pasta dish on Google.
By why put vodka in a tomato sauce? Is it just for the sake of anarchic showiness, or is there a good reason for it? It turns out that ethanol has a property that dissolves certain flavour chemicals in tomatoes that is not achieved with water alone. Serious Eats’ J Kenji Lopéz-Alt conducted a series of experiments on vodka in tomato sauce and concluded that neutral alcohol enhances the aroma of the sauce at the same time as adding a little welcome heat that cuts through the dairy. Additionally the alcohol enables cream to emulsify with the acidic tomatoes – whereas, normally the tomatoes would cause the cream to split.
Penne alla vodka
- 50g unsalted butter
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic, sliced
- 1 pinch of chilli flakes
- 150g tomato puree
- 400g canned chopped tomatoes
- 250ml double cream
- 60ml vodka
- 60g Parmesan, grated
- 400g penne or rigatoni
- Sea salt
Heat the butter in a large saucepan. Fry the onions, garlic and chilli on low for 15 mins until soft.
Add the tomato puree and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the canned tomatoes and cook gently for about 10 mins until reduced a little.
Add the cream and blitz the whole mixture in a blender until smooth. Return to a clean pan.
Cook the pasta until just under done Add the vodka to the tomato sauce about 1 minute before the pasta is cooked. Transfer the pasta to the sauce using a slotted spoon. Mix the pasta in with the sauce and continue cooking until done. Add a little of the pasta water if the sauce is too thick. Once the pasta is done, stir in the cheese off the heat.
Serve with additional grated parmesan over the top.