This Penne alla Vodka recipe is a favorite Italian pasta dish made with tender penne tossed in a fresh and creamy tomato-based sauce, enhanced by a splash of vodka and a hint of heat from crushed red pepper flakes.
We love homemade Italian pasta recipes, from classics like Spaghetti and Meatballs to Cajun Chicken Pasta and of course Lasagna. If your family is as pasta-obsessed as we are, check out the video to see how easy it is to make your own vodka sauce with penne at home!
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Creamy Penne alla Vodka Recipe
We’re sharing our secrets for making authentic, restaurant-worthy Penne alla Vodka right at home. This is an easy pasta recipe made with tender penne noodles tossed in a rich and creamy tomato-based sauce. The vodka sauce is one of the most flavorful pasta sauces you’ll try. Prepare to go back for second helpings!
We serve ours topped with plenty of parmesan and fresh herbs, with a side of Focaccia Bread for soaking up the extra sauce. Just wait until you try it.
Penne alla Vodka Video
Watch Natasha make the best homemade vodka sauce on the stovetop with just a few simple ingredients. Here’s why you’ll love this classic pasta dish:
- Quick and Easy – Unlike a Bolognese Sauce, there’s no lengthy simmering required, and is done in less than 30 minutes.
- Flavorful – The creamy tomato-based sauce is rich and full of flavor, enhanced by a hint of vodka and zingy red pepper flakes.
- Family-Friendly – It’s easy to adapt this recipe to suit your family’s tastes. Leave out the chili flakes for a more kid-friendly dish, or go all in with easy add-ins (see below).
What Is Vodka Sauce?
Vodka sauce is a classic Italian-American pasta sauce made from a base of tomatoes, heavy cream, and – you guessed it – vodka. There are tons of recipes for vodka sauce out there, but we love the simplicity, texture, and depth of flavor of this one.
Ours is made with fresh parmesan, herbs, and just the right amount of crushed pepper heat. And if you’re concerned about tasting vodka in your sauce, don’t worry. Most of the vodka cooks off but helps meld the cream and tomatoes together, and adds wonderful flavor to the end result.
In true Italian style, the ingredients for Penne alla Vodka are simplicity at its finest. For this reason, quality key. Here is an overview of what you’ll need, with the full recipe details in the recipe card below.
- Onion and Garlic – we used yellow onion sauteed with garlic to form the aromatic base for the pasta sauce.
- Tomato Paste – I use double-concentrated tomato paste for even more tomato flavor.
- Vodka – Creates a lovely aroma and also helps to emulsify the sauce.
- Canned Tomatoes – use canned whole tomatoes (fire-roasted tomatoes would also work). For a smoother sauce, you can blitz the whole tomatoes in a food processor beforehand.
- Red Pepper Flakes – For a hint of spicy kick. You can omit chili flakes for a mild vodka sauce or double it for a spicier sauce.
- Salt – I use fine sea salt to season my sauce, as well as the water I use to boil the pasta. Generously salting the pasta water is key to flavorful pasta. Don’t skip it!
- Heavy Cream – Adding cream brings subtle sweetness and extra creaminess to the pasta sauce and balances the acidity.
- Parmesan Cheese – use freshly grated in your sauce and to garnish.
- Penne Pasta – We love penne pasta but you can substitute it with another tube-shaped pasta or your favorite pasta.
Pro Tip: I’ve always found Italian canned tomatoes, like San Marzano, to have the best flavor. If you can’t find the kind that is actually produced in Italy, look for Italian-style whole tomatoes instead. Here’s a helpful resource for finding the best canned tomatoes.
How to Make Penne alla Vodka
Follow these steps for perfect vodka sauce pasta every time:
- Aromatics – First, sauté the onions in a large pot with olive oil, then stir in the garlic.
- Add Vodka – Add tomato paste and vodka and stir while the alcohol evaporates.
- Add Tomatoes – Add in your canned tomatoes, season with salt and red pepper flakes, then use a spatula to mash everything together and simmer.
- Cook the Pasta – Meanwhile, get a large pot of salted water to a boil (you want to add enough salt to taste like seawater). Cook the pasta al dente according to the directions on the package.
- Finish the Sauce – Stir heavy cream and grated parmesan into the vodka sauce.
- Combine – Use a strainer to scoop the cooked penne directly from the pasta water to your vodka sauce and give it a toss to coat. Spoon in some reserved pasta water to get the sauce ultra-creamy and season to taste.
Pro Tip: Stirring in a few spoonfuls of pasta water at the end will make your pasta sauce even saucier. The starches in the pasta water emulsify with the fats in the sauce, for added richness. This is an age-old Italian cooking trick that helps a sauce become creamy without actually adding extra cream.
It’s best to use heavy whipping cream over half-and-half in this recipe, as the sauce is less likely to break.
Most of the vodka will evaporate as it cooks. Be sure to let the sauce simmer for the full 15 minutes, to avoid any strong flavors overpowering the dish.
We use Smirnoff 21 vodka which is 80-proof. This is the same vodka we use for making Vanilla Extract.
You can use any tube-shaped pasta. We love how the ridges on penne grab hold of the sauce, but you can use Rigatoni, ziti, or any similar-shaped pasta you’d like. That said, this sauce would also work with spaghetti or your favorite pasta.
Looking to bulk up your penne pasta with extra ingredients? Below are some of our favorite add-ins for Penne alla Vodka:
- Vegetables – Stir in cooked veggies like broccoli, zucchini, asparagus, red bell peppers, or mushrooms.
- Protein – Slice up Oven Baked Chicken Breasts, Juicy Meatballs, or crispy pancetta.
- Seafood – Add shrimp, scallops, or a mix of seafood.
- Cheese – For an even cheesier dish, grate over fresh mozzarella, or fontina cheese.
What to Serve With Penne alla Vodka
We love serving penne alla vodka for pasta night alongside easy Italian-inspired sides. Our favorites are a fresh Caesar Salad or Caprese Salad, plus Focaccia Bread for soaking up the leftover sauce. Try these other tasty serving suggestions:
- Garlic Bread – Get that restaurant feeling with homemade Garlic Bread.
- Veggies – Pair penne alla vodka with Roasted Broccoli or Roasted Asparagus.
- Soups – Try a starter of Zuppa Toscana or Italian Wedding Soup.
- Protein – Serve with Baked Chicken Breast or Shrimp Scampi.
Penne alla vodka is great for keeping leftovers. Here are some basic storage instructions:
- To Refrigerate: Store any leftover penne and sauce airtight in the fridge for up to 3-4 days.
- Freezing: The sauce by itself is freezer friendly. Store the cooled vodka sauce airtight in a freezer-safe container, and freeze for up to 2 months. Defrost the sauce in the fridge overnight before reheating it while you boil the pasta.
- To Reheat: Warm up leftover pasta in the microwave with a little water added to help loosen up the noodles. You can also reheat the pasta in a saucepan on the stovetop until heated through.
We just know the warm flavors of this Penne alla Vodka recipe will transport you to your favorite Italian restaurant whenever a craving strikes. If you like to get adventurous with your pasta, this may become a new favorite for you.
More Easy Pasta Recipes
Penne alla Vodka Recipe
- 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1/2 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 Tbsp double-concentrated tomato paste
- 1/4 cup vodka
- 14 oz canned whole tomatoes
- 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, or added to taste
- 1/2 tsp fine sea salt, plus more for the pasta water
- 3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, plus more to serve
- 1 lb penne pasta, or rigatoni
- 1/2 cup pasta cooking water, or as needed
- Fresh parsley or basil leaves, torn or chopped to garnish
- In a coated dutch oven or non-reactive pot over medium heat, add olive oil and onions and saute until softened, 5-6 minutes stirring occasionally. Add garlic and saute for another 30 seconds until fragrant.
- Add tomato paste and Vodka and stir for 2 minutes until most of the vodka has evaporated out.
- Add tomatoes, salt, and red pepper flakes. Mash up the tomatoes with your spatula and simmer the sauce partially covered over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, start cooking the pasta so it’s ready at the same time as your sauce.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil for pasta. Season pasta water generously with salt (it should have enough salt to taste like ocean water). Once the water has boiled, add pasta and stir several times to keep the pasta from sticking. Cook until al dente according to pasta instructions. Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water.
- Stir whipping cream into the sauce then add shredded cheese and return to a simmer.
- Add cooked pasta directly from the cooking water, adding a couple of Tbsp of pasta water at a time to make it saucier. Season with salt then serve garnished with more cheese if desired, parsley, or basil.