Italian Sauces VII: Vodka Sauce

Welcome back.  Did you do your homework?  What did you create with that marinara recipe?  Did you add chicken, spinach, and Alfredo?  Did you add a carton of chicken stock, ditalini pasta, and canellini beans to make pasta fagioli?  Did you up the red pepper flake until the sauce blasted your face off and serve with penne?  That's actually called Arabiatta, so great minds think alike.

I'm sure you figured out all those hacks on your own.  To reward you for your creativity, today, I'm going to reward you with a bonus that will turn things up.

 Crimson tides.

Crimson tides.

Let's set the scene.  To quote a great Italian-American, Sophia Petrillo, "Picture it."  New York, 1984.  The streets of Wall Street are littered with cake crumbs.  Everyone is walking around dressed in Larry-King suspenders, ill-fitting Donald-Trump suits, two-tone white-collared shirts, and shoulder pads that would make Tess McGill and Holly Gennaro stop and stare.  Open flames are not permitted in the Financial District because the amount of hair spray in the air could cause a chain reaction.  People are literally losing their minds about business cards.  In short: "It's Morning again in America."

After the markets close on Friday, and people follow stock-prices down from cocaine-fueled highs, they gotta eat.  Stumble over to the closest Italian place in the neighborhood, make sure there are no candles on the table, and get a menu.  You're not going to order spaghetti and meatballs tonight, because Nonna in Staten Island makes a Sunday Gravy that makes all others pale in comparison.  Nah, nothing homey tonight.  Gotta go for something flashy, that packs a punch, that says, I eat as hard as I party as hard as I work.  Something that says, "I'm as rich as my pastas are."  So you pick rigatoni alla vodka because--let's say it all together--"Greed is good."

Indeed, the humble origins of vodka sauce are not humble at all.  As with many of the sauces discussed so far, the dish's true provenance is a little unclear.  One story has it that, in the late 1970s, to increase sales of vodka in a globalizing Italy, a place not really known for potato-based Eastern-European spirits (go figure), vodka importers pushed chefs and restauranteurs to come up with recipes that would spotlight how...delicious? flavorful?...vodka is.  Italian chefs, in the midst of what is called the Nuova Cucina movement, were eager to show that Italian food was more than just parmesan and bolognese (that's another show, kids).  So they fell hook, line, and sinker for the Smirnoff sweet-talk.  This version of the history has it that the first vodka sauce appeared at Dante in Bologna in the late 1970s, and was introduced to eager Americans a few years later at Joanna's Restaurant in Manhattan.

Another line of the history claims that Vodka sauce first originated in the US in the early seventies at the fancy New York restaurant Orsini.  Supposedly, Luigi Franzese, a Neapolitan immigrant working there, created the dish, which he prepared table-side.  He named it "alla Russa" for the inclusion of vodka.  The least fleshed-out story credits a Columbia Grad, James Doty, for creating the dish, which seems to make the most sense, given the partially-empty bottles of Sky probably lying around after Columbia cocktail functions.

Regardless of which version of history you prefer, pasta alla vodka's origins are inextricably associated with luxury.  Remember, this dish is a *conscious* departure from cucina povera.  Its bells-and-whistles are indeed luscious and impressive in small doses.  The cream is sweet, and pairs perfectly with the buzz of the red pepper flakes, and with the slight peppery astringency of the vodka at the back of the throat.  Let's roll those sleeves up, put away the hairspray, and crank some Tina Turner.

Pasta alla Vodka

  • One batch marinara sauce
  • One sweet onion, chopped fine.
  • Two cloves garlic
  • At least 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flake
  • 1/3 cup vodka
  • Between 1/4 and 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • One pound tubular pasta
  • Parmesan cheese to taste

Put a pot on to boil your tubes.  If you haven't made your marinara, start there.  I just so happen to have a recipe for it...ahem...here.  Okay, you have that down.  Now, we need to gild the lily.

Given the presence of cream, we're double down on the heat and allium quotient to cut through the fat.  Lightly spritz a pan with some olive oil, and slowly sweat your onion.  You don't want color on it.  Add a pinch of salt, and just cook until it's softened, about 5 minutes.  Then, add your garlic and cook until you can smell the garlic.  DON'T BURN THE GARLIC--you get the picture at this point, I hope.  At this point, add your pepper flake and slightly toast in the oil, about 30 seconds.  Now, get ready.  Grab your vodka, and, if you're working on a gas range, turn off the heat.  Pour in the vodka SLOWLY and CAREFULLY.

Turn the heat back on low.  Don't boil the vodka.  If you want to be fancy, and I don't necessarily advise it unless you're a self-actualized adult with a fire-extinguisher, you can light the hootch.  You can use a match (don't blow your face off), or you can tip the pan slightly such that your range catches the alcohol.  LIGHT AT YOUR OWN RISK.  Because of the high alcohol content, it'll burn for a while, so be aware.  If you choose safety, heat the vodka until it reduces by about a third, or until you stop smelling fumes. 

 The fire is much larger than this appears.  Be aware!

The fire is much larger than this appears.  Be aware!

Add your marinara and stir to combine.  You should probably put your pasta in the boiling water now...

Now, you get to be artful.  Drizzle in your cream.  If you like it lighter, add more.  More tomatoey?  Add less.  Let the whole thing get happy-happy, as Emeril always used to say.  As you wait, here's a science interlude. 

Some of the more chemically-inclined among you may be asking: However will the cream, which is virtually 100% fat, not just stay as a disgusting slick on top of the water-based tomato phase?  Well, part of the benefits of using vodka, beyond the unique flavor and astringent bite, is that alcohol acts as an emulsifier.  Remember all that stuff we talked about in reference to starch being able to bind oil- and water-phases?  It applies here, too.  Vodka (ethanol) has a small molecular region which is non-polar, that can dissolve in fats.  And the region of the molecule which renders it an alcohol is polar, which is water-soluble.  So basically, the vodka is the officiant at a chemical shotgun marriage.

Glad that's out of the way.  Now, the noodles are done.  Drop your tubes in the sauce, toss through, hit with cheese and fresh parsley.  And now, we're using another emulsifier here: starch.  Same applies.  We want everything fused together.  In my case, I used paccheri (huge tubes) and added some fresh mozzarella pearls because we're already being indulgent.  Remember: creativity.

Enjoy this exercise in excess.  Seriously, it's really good.  Not an everyday food, to be sure.  Not a celebration of simple ingredients in the least.  But sometimes, we all need a day where we say, "Sure, I can treat myself.  My boss screamed at me today, and so I will drown my sorrows with cream and spirits."  Use this dish to affirm that greed definitely can be good, a dish born of the happy union of international globalization, Russian intriguing, elite Manhattan society, and going ham at an Ivy League school.  Just think of pasta alla vodka as Donald Trump in pasta-form.  It's definitely as self-indulgent as the GOP candidate.  Certainly as orange.  And probably richer.  We still haven't seen those tax returns.