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Jan 5, 2010
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Wine With . . . Penne with Vodka Sauce 

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

This seemingly innocent dish elicits a surprising amount of culinary controversy.  Is it an American creation that originated in the 1970s or 80s, or an Italian classic, penne alla vodka? Since vodka--an essentially odorless, tasteless fluid--is usually added to the sauce early in the cooking process, guaranteeing that most of the alcohol is cooked off, what possible purpose does it serve?  And our own question about this dish: isn’t it, kind of, well, boring?

After searching around the Internet and through various cookbooks, and experimenting in the kitchen with different recipes, we came up with answers to some of these questions. Whether the dish originated in Italy or America is somewhat debatable, but it’s clear that penne with a sauce made of tomatoes, cream and vodka was turning up on Manhattan restaurant menus by the 1980s.  While embellishments are sometimes added--pancetta, sausage, basil--most recipes stick to the basics: penne (or other tubular pasta), tomatoes, cream and vodka. 

Much has been written about what the vodka contributes to the overall tastiness of the sauce.  A number of bloggers debunk its addition altogether, but several credible writers explain that it serves a genuine purpose.   In a recent New York Times article, Melissa Clark wrote that a tomato sauce made with a touch of vodka can be slightly more intense than one made without: “Some flavors are alcohol-soluble, meaning that they will be released only by the addition of alcohol. Vodka can help bring out these flavors without contributing another flavor, as wine or brandy would,” she explains, adding that this can be a particular boon if you are using less than perfectly ripe, flavorful late-summer tomatoes.  Food scientists Shirley Corrigher and Harold McGee both corroborate this explanation.  Corrigher elaborates on the premise that alcohol is a solvent, saying that unlike water -- which dissolves some compounds -- or fat -- which dissolves others -- alcohol dissolves both fat soluble and water soluble flavor compounds, and by thus pulling them out of the ingredients contributes to the overall flavor.

Well, yes.  But our (admittedly non-scientific) kitchen experiments indicated that the flavor enhancement was very subtle.  So we turned to Nigella Lawson’s suggestion to stir the vodka directly into the cooked and drained penne before adding it to the sauce.  But since we still wanted the alcohol to perform its job of extracting flavor from the tomatoes, we decided to divide the vodka into two doses, one for the sauce, the other for the pasta.  Bingo!  The results were considerably more flavorful, and when we added a splash more vodka than the ¼ cup at the end, the flavors rounded out and intensified even more.  All of this is obviously a matter of choice--play around with it and see what you think.

We also found that adding a forthright cheese such as Pecorino Romano to the traditional Parmesan kicked the flavor up another notch without impinging on the pure flavor trinity of pasta/tomatoes/cream.  As a result, our feelings about this dish have now gone from ho-hum to hooray! 


Use fresh tomatoes in season, otherwise canned tomatoes work perfectly well.  Many people think pepper vodka is great in this recipe.  We’ve used both whole grain and regular penne--the former has a firmer texture, the latter has a more neutral flavor, but it’s all a question of personal preference.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 28-ounce can diced or crushed tomatoes

Salt and pepper (or red pepper flakes)

½ cup vodka (or more, depending on taste), divided use

1/3 cup heavy cream

1 pound penne pasta

Parmesan and/or Pecorino Romano cheeses for grating

Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan, and cook the onion in it over medium heat until it begins to soften, about 7 minutes (do not let it brown).  Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute, then add the tomatoes.  Season to taste and stir in ¼ cup of the vodka.  Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove pan from heat, stir in cream, and return to low heat for a minute or two, or until mixture is thoroughly warm. 

Meanwhile, bring a large kettle of salted water to the boil and cook penne according to package directions.  When it is cooked through but still very slightly firm, drain it thoroughly and return it to the pan.  Stir the butter in vigorously, then stir in the remaining ¼ vodka.  Add the hot tomato sauce and serve at once, sprinkling each serving with grated cheese.

Serves four.

t   t   t

This affordable dish is just the thing to whip up in January, when winter winds howl and holiday bills pile high.  In keeping with the theme of affordability, none of the twelve wines we sampled with it cost more than $20.  Most were red, but we included a couple of whites as well.  One of the whites, an Italian Pinot Grigio, tasted watery and dilute, but the other, a California Sauvignon Blanc, proved delicious.  Why?  Because it shared certain basic features with the best red partners--namely, a hint of sweetness, sufficient body to hold its own, and refreshing acidity that allowed the wine to cut through the pasta’s rich, creamy sauce.  Many of the reds we tried couldn’t do this.  They simply seemed too weighty or ponderous, and so made the dish seem heavy.  What became clear, then, is that this popular, easy to prepare dish goes best with a wine, no matter its color or provenance, that is marked by verve rather than sheer power.



Approx. Price





Louis Jadot, Beaujolais-Villages (France) 2008

(Imported by Kobrand)





This wine has lost is baby fat and settled down into a smooth, harmonious but still vibrant expression of Beaujolais vivacity.  Its soft texture echoed the pasta sauce, but its brightness was what made it succeed so well with this particular dish.  We loved the match!




Greg Norman, North Coast (California) Sauvignon Blanc 2008




The surprise of our tasting, this vibrant white had just enough weight to stay focused, and its bright, citrus character proved to be very refreshing.  It made a fairly rich dish seem lighter, and so made us eager to take another bite.




Piccini, Chianti (Tuscany, Italy) “Superiore” 2006

(Imported by A. V. Brands)






What a value!  Though a bit shorter in the finish than Chiantis costing $20 and up, this bargain-priced gem offers the combination of bright, acid-driven fruit and earthy, dusty undertones that so distinguish Tuscan terroir.  In our experience, good Chianti shines with tomato-based sauces.  Though we worried that a $10 example might not be able to do so, this one came through beautifully.




Granrojo “Rojo,” Tierra de Castilla (Spain) Garnacha, 2008

(Imported by Quintessential)





Soft on the palate, but marked by bright fruit flavors, this wine exhibited the profile that worked so well with this dish--a crisp attack combined with a light to medium body and a fairly lush texture.  It also has subtly earthy secondary flavors, something that only added to its appeal.





Tenuta Rapitalà, Sicilia (Italy) Nero d’Avola, 2008 (Imported by Frederick Wildman)







The most full-bodied red we are recommending, this fairly hearty Sicilian had just enough verve and zest to work with the rich, creamy pasta.  A warming wine, part of its appeal came from our trying it on a cold winter’s evening, as it gave the dish added depth.  In this, it had the opposite effect as the Sauvignon Blanc we are recommending, proving yet again that context contributes greatly to the enjoyment of food and wine.