This is the pasta sauce you'll want to make on repeat because you can make it in 20 minutes and you probably have all the ingredients in your pantry. Easy and creamy, this spicy tomato vodka sauce gets its depth of flavor from a little vodka, some pancetta and lots of love.
When you're Italian, family pasta recipes get passed down usually without a recipe card. Like my homemade red sauce or Italian meatballs. These are recipes I've learned by watching and listening to my mom and grandmas do their thing in the kitchen. But, this spicy tomato vodka sauce with pancetta has a different history.
My nephew, who quite the creative and skilled cook, recently texted me for my penne alla vodka recipe.
Gulp. I didn't have one.
So, I grabbed a large skillet, rifled through the pantry and liquor cabinet for some vodka, tomato paste and light cream (ingredients a well-stocked pantry needs) and this creamy bowtie pasta with vodka sauce was born.
Thank my nephew because it's a keeper. And so is he.
What is vodka sauce?
It's a little fuzzy. Most food lore lovers agree that vodka sauce appeared somewhere in the 70's or 80's; however, whether it originated in Italy or America seems to be up for debate.
Recently, vodka sauce had a resurgence when the supermodel, Gigi Hadid, made a spicy penne alla vodka that went viral on Instagram. Apparently this super easy pasta recipe especially appeals to the younger set because the ingredients needed are easy to get, making it a great option for busy nights.
Why Add Vodka to Tomato Sauce?
According to this article on vodka sauce from Serious Eats, vodka "adds a touch of heat and a bit of a sharp bite that help balance out the sweetness of the tomatoes and the cream."-Josie + Nina
Ingredients you'll need (and two you won't)
This homemade vodka sauce is a little different in that it doesn't use San Marzano tomatoes (my favorite!). It starts with tomato paste. And since it's a cream sauce, of course there's cream. But not heavy cream.
Here's are the key ingredients:
- Light table cream. Vodka sauce, like Alfredo sauce, uses light cream which is sometimes called table cream. It's an 18% cream and can be hard to find. Dean's Light Cream is the one I buy. Look closely for it in your dairy section of your grocer or at Target.
- Tomato paste. A whole 6 oz can so no waste!
- Vodka. You'll use a small amount so borrow if you don't have any.
- Diced pancetta. You can buy it already diced from grocers like Trader Joe's.
- Crushed red pepper. A pinch of red pepper flakes brings the heat.Start small and work your way up. A little goes a long way!
- Fresh Basil. A couple of leaves makes all the difference. And have you seen these dried basil leaves? A great option!
- Pasta water. With how much you'll use, this probably should be near the top of the list but I didn't think pasta water spicy vodka sauce sounded like a good name.
Best vodka to use
Any vodka that is your favorite that you like to drink. It doesn't have to be the most expensive.
Pasta shape sure things
While any cooked pasta will do, this creamy vodka sauce pairs best with:
- Bowtie. As shown here! Bowtie pasta or farfalle (butterfly) is one of my favorites because the little bowties cling to the sauce in the best way
- Rigatoni. There's nothing biting into an al dente rigatoni with some of that creamy tomato sauce in the hollowed out tube. So dreamy!
- Penne. You can't make the best penne alla vodka recipe without penne! Amirite?
- Tortellini. Is there any sauce that doesn't go with tortellini?
Enough reading. Ready to make this classic Italian pasta dish? I mean classic Italian-American pasta dish! 😊
How to make vodka sauce
- Start by cooking diced pancetta in some olive oil over medium-high heat for about 3-4 min till crispy. Remove to a paper towel lined plate to drain .
- Add some butter (or you can use more olive oil) to the same pan and saute the shallots over medium heat for a bit and add the chopped garlic cloves .
- Swirl in the tomato paste and stir allowing it to caramelize. Sprinkle in the crushed red pepper along with some salt and pepper .
- Add vodka . Simmer and cook down and stir (for at least two minutes)[⅚].
- Over medium-low heat, add the light cream  and stir to make a smooth tomato sauce .
- Toss in the pasta using tongs making sure to coat evenly with the sauce .
- Garnish w pancetta, fresh mozzarella balls, grated fresh parmesan cheese and some sprigs of basil.
If it looks like you're not going to have enough sauce, add in some pasta water a little at a time. (I used the whole cup but added ¼ cup at a time).-Josie + Nina
Do I have to use vodka in the sauce?
It is pasta alla vodka, after all. Although it's such a small amount the vodka works as an emulsifier to bring the cream and tomatoes together and adds a little heat as well.
Is vodka sauce just Alfredo sauce and marinara mixed together?
Nope! That is pink sauce or rosa sauce which is typically equal parts of heavy cream mixed with tomato puree.
I don't like or can't find pancetta. What can I use instead?
While your first impulse would be to choose bacon, I recommend prosciutto because it won't add a smokey flavor. If bacon is all you have, by all means, use it!
Is vodka sauce safe for my kids? Will my kids taste the vodka?
Because there's such a small amount of alcohol that is cooked off while preparing the recipe, most pediatricians agree that vodka sauce is safe for kids.
Serving and Storage Tips
Serve with a some garlic bread to scoop up all that yummy sauce along with a fresh arugula salad.
Storage and Reheating Instructions
Storage. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to three days.
Reheat. Heat in a skillet over medium-low heat adding a little more vodka (like 1 teaspoon) or leftover pasta water to loosen the sauce. The vodka will add back in some flavor lost from refrigeration. You also can heat in the microwave in 30 second increments stirring between heat cycles.
…before you go...
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Spicy Tomato Vodka Sauce with Pancetta
- ½ lb bowtie pasta, or rigatoni, penne or your favorite
- 1 cup reserved pasta water, from cooking pasta
- 3-4 oz diced pancetta, I typically find at Trader Joe's
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 1 Tablespoon butter
- 1 shallot, minced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced, about 2 Tablespoons
- 6 oz can of tomato paste
- ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or more to taste
- 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 3 oz vodka
- 1 cup light cream, 18%, sometimes called table cream
- ½ cup fresh parmesan cheese , plus more for serving
- fresh basil
For the pasta
- Cook pasta in generously salted boiling water (I use kosher salt) according to package directions until al dente.
- Scoop out 1 cup of pasta water before draining pasta in a colander. Set aside.
For the Vodka Sauce (while the pasta cooks)
- In a large skillet, heat 1 Tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. Cook pancetta for about 3-4 minutes until crispy, stirring periodically. Keep an eye on it as you don't want it to burn.
- When the pancetta is crispy, use a slotted spoon and remove to a paper-towel lined plate to drain.
- In the same skillet, melt the butter (you can also substitute olive oil) over medium heat. Saute the chopped shallot in the butter for about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and saute until you smell it about 30 seconds.
- Swirl in the tomato paste, crushed red pepper, salt and black pepper. Caramelize the tomato paste for a minute or two and then add the vodka to the pan. Cook for two minutes.
- Pour in the light cream and immediately lower the heat. Stir the sauce until the cream is combined and simmer the sauce to bring all the flavors together.
- Add the drained pasta to the skillet and toss the pasta in the sauce coating each piece. The sauce might be a little thick so now is the time to add in the pasta water to loosen it all up. I start with ¼ cup at a time.
- Sprinkle in the parmesan cheese and stir. Top with some fresh basil and more parmesan. Serve immediately.