A quick post on this well-known but relatively new variant on penne all’arrabbiata: make your arrabbiata with less peperoncino than usual, just enough to give the dish a slight ‘bite’, and then add a shot glass or two of vodka to your sauce. Allow to continue simmer a few minutes to evaporate the vodka, and then add cream. You can tell the right amount by the color of the sauce–it should be a creamy orange as pictured in the photo above. When the penne are done, add them to the sauce and saute them as you would for an arrabbiata. Mix in a handful of parmesan cheese and serve.
NOTES: For some reason that escapes me, surely having to do with the addition of cream, vodka sauce tends to get absorbed very quickly into the pasta, much more so than for arrabbiata or other tomato-based sauces. If you find the pasta becoming too dry, you can add a bit more cream or some of the pasta water to loosen it up.
By the way, my preferred type of penne to use for both dishes is penne rigate, or ‘ribbed’ penne. Often the pasta you will find in supermarkets marked as ‘penne’ are actually penne lisce or ‘smooth’ penne. If you ask me, penne lisce are not much good for anything. I find their smooth texture rather off-putting. And they don’t hold a sauce as well as penne rigate. But this, as for so many things culinary, is a matter of personal taste. And since penne alla vodka contains cream, which makes the sauce cling more readily to the pasta, they are less objectionable in this dish than others.
Even if this is a relatively new recipe–or perhaps because it does not have the ‘authority’ of tradition behind it–there are any number of variations to this recipe. I like the above straight-forward version, which as mentioned is simply a riff on arrabbiata. But other recipes call for using butter instead of oil, and onion instead of garlic, which is more consistent with the use of cream. A number of recipes also call for pancetta to be used as part of, or instead of, the onion soffritto, which would make this an even richer dish. Many of these richer variations omit the peperoncino.
There are a number of competing stories about the origins of penne alla vodka. They are nicely summarized in this Wikipedia article. What all these stories agree on is that this is a ‘new’ dish, no older than the 1930s and probably more like from the 1970s or 80s. The combinations in this dish, and the use of vodka, are certain don’t reflect a traditional approach. But there is a reason for the poplarity of the dish: it does taste good. My niece asks for it every time she comes to town…