Oooh, do I have a good one for you this week. What could be better for a Valentine’s Day dinner than a pasta dish that is rich, lush and easy to make?

Penne alla Vodka hits all the right notes and is so simple that you can whip it up any old night and treat yourself — and your loves — to a meal worth remembering.

According to multiple sources, Penne alla Vodka was created in the 1970s, though the exact origin remains in dispute. Some say that it is an Italian American dish, while others say it was created in Bologna, Italy — all I know is that I am grateful it exists.

I was first introduced to this specialty back in the 1990s at Portofino, one of my all-time favorite Italian restaurants, located in Quebec City. The last time I enjoyed it in a restaurant was nearly two years ago at a wonderful trattoria located in the Trastevere district of Rome. It was so delicious that I can still taste it whenever I think of that evening.

With travel not an option at the moment, I have been working to re-create that experience here at home for the past few months. I served my latest version to my family last weekend, and if Tony’s excessive swooning was any indication, I have hit the jackpot.

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At its core, Penne alla Vodka is just pasta tossed with an elevated tomato sauce. But a few simple twists along the way transform an ordinary red sauce into something worthy of a swoon.

It all starts with pancetta — an Italian meat that is similar to bacon, but it's cured in salt instead of being smoked. In our local markets, you can find pancetta packaged in thin slices in the specialty meats section of the deli.

Pancetta is a salt-cured Italian meat, similar to bacon, that helps to elevate the vodka sauce from good to great. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Pancetta is a salt-cured Italian meat, similar to bacon, that helps to elevate the vodka sauce from good to great. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
The pancetta is diced and cooked until crispy to add texture and flavor to the sauce. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
The pancetta is diced and cooked until crispy to add texture and flavor to the sauce. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

The pancetta is diced and cooked until crispy, and then a generous amount of finely chopped onions, some minced garlic and a dash of crushed red pepper flakes are added. These ingredients provide the aromatics of the sauce, and they are cooked together until the onions are tender and translucent.

Vodka is the next addition, and this is the secret that takes the sauce to the next level. The vodka is reduced over medium-low heat until it is nearly evaporated. As the vodka reduces, nearly all of the alcohol content cooks off, making this dish safe to eat for persons of all ages.

As those particles are released, they capture the aromas of the other ingredients and further amplify their flavor and fragrance in the sauce. The vodka also has flavor properties of its own and brings a gentle heat to the sauce, along with a complexity that seems to elongate the flavor so that it lingers pleasantly in your mouth.

Vodka is a key component of this Italian specialty. The vodka is cooked with the pancetta, onions, garlic and crushed red pepper until nearly evaporated, which burns off the alcohol and elevates the aromatics. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Vodka is a key component of this Italian specialty. The vodka is cooked with the pancetta, onions, garlic and crushed red pepper until nearly evaporated, which burns off the alcohol and elevates the aromatics. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Crushed tomatoes give the sauce a chunky-smooth consistency, and a heavy splash of cream is added just at the end to give the sauce its signature rusty-pink color and lush, creamy finish.

Penne alla Vodka is rich, but not heavy, simple, yet complex, and oh, so delicious. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do, and I wish you a very happy and delicious Valentine’s Day.

Penne alla Vodka

Short, tubular noodles like penne are perfect for this rustic dish, as the ridges and tubes help to capture as much sauce as possible in every forkful. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Short, tubular noodles like penne are perfect for this rustic dish, as the ridges and tubes help to capture as much sauce as possible in every forkful. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

PRINT: Click here for a printer-friendly version of this recipe

Serves: 4 as an entree; 6-8 as a first course

Ingredients:

1 pound penne pasta (or other short, tubular noodle)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 ounces pancetta, diced

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)

2 cloves garlic, minced

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

¾ cup vodka

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 to 2 cups water

¾ cup heavy cream

¼ cup Grana Padano or Parmesan cheese, plus more to garnish

1 tablespoon fresh Italian parsley, stems removed, finely chopped

Directions:

Fill a large pot with at least 4 quarts of water. Add 1 tablespoon kosher salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Add pasta and cook until al dente, according to the directions on the package. When ready, drain the pasta and set aside until ready to toss with the sauce.

As the pasta cooks, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally until crispy, about 5 minutes.

Add the onion, garlic and crushed red pepper. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the onion is soft and translucent, about 5 to 6 minutes.

Add the vodka and cook on medium-low, stirring occasionally until it is nearly all evaporated, about 5 minutes. Most of the alcohol content will burn off during this stage.

Add the crushed tomatoes, salt and pepper and stir to combine. Stir in 1 cup water and cook over medium heat until the sauce reaches a simmer, then reduce to medium-low and simmer for 12 minutes. The sauce will thicken during this time and can be thinned out if desired by adding more water, ¼ cup at a time, until desired consistency is achieved.

Stir in cream and cook over low heat for 2 minutes. Add cooked pasta and grated cheese and toss until noodles are evenly coated. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

Serve with more grated cheese, a sprinkling of chopped parsley and a good loaf of crusty bread to sop up the sauce.

A heavy splash of cream is added to give the sauce a lush and creamy finish and its signature rusty-pink color. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
A heavy splash of cream is added to give the sauce a lush and creamy finish and its signature rusty-pink color. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

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“Home with the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com.