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Penne alla Vodka with Creamy Tomato Sauce

4.80 from 29 votes

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You must try this delicious recipe, a creamy pasta with pink sauce based on the classic penne alla vodka pasta. The secret to the incredibly tasty cream sauce is that it uses gin instead of vodka, along with tomato puree and fresh rosemary. This dish is a quick, plush-tasting pasta dinner you’ll crave again and again.

Oh, penne alla vodka. Who doesn’t love it? The classic pasta recipe is one of the most well-known pasta dishes ever.

This pasta recipe blows my mind every time I make it — penne pasta tossed in a rich, tomato-based cream sauce, seasoned with chopped onion, fresh rosemary and crushed red chili.

Not to mention, the words “vodka sauce” throw me back instantly to the 1980s, bringing visions of MTV and super-big permed hair.

There’s a good reason vodka sauce pasta is so good and remains very popular. The creamy pink sauce is a taste sensation, with a perfect balance of tangy tomato, sweet cream and pasta.

In other words, it’s the ultimate comfort food recipe that tastes like something you’d order at your favorite Italian restaurant along with a big bowl of spaghetti amatriciana.

I’m guessing we can all use an order of that right about now! Read on to learn how to make my absolute favorite penne with vodka sauce.

Ingredients in vodka sauce

The good news is that you probably have everything in your pantry to start cooking this recipe right now. Grab a large skillet and your pasta pot!

  • Dried penne, ziti, mostaccioli or other tubular-shaped pasta: I recommend short pasta shapes labeled “rigate”, which in Italian means the pasta has lines etched into the surface. Those lines grab more of the sauce!
  • Gin or vodka: Either one will work, but give gin a try if you have it. The alcohol dissipates while simmering, so don’t worry about getting tipsy.
  • Tomato puree or crushed tomatoes: Bottled tomato puree (passata), strained tomatoes or pureed, canned crushed tomatoes are what you want for the smoothest sauce.
  • Heavy cream: We’ve also used full-fat unsweetened oat milk and it works great!
  • Onion or shallot
  • Butter: Use salted or unsalted butter. Ghee or olive oil will also work for a reduced lactose sauce.
  • Fresh rosemary sprigs: If you don’t have it, you can use chopped fresh parsley, fresh oregano or fresh basil leaves. Sprinkle the chopped herbs over the pasta when it’s done.
  • Crushed red chili: Red pepper flakes add a subtle layer of heat, but not too much. If you’re sensitive to hot food, use grated black pepper instead.
  • Parmesan cheese: Get the freshly grated kind, or better yet buy a hunk of good quality Parmesan and grate it yourself.
Image of a skillet filled with penne alla vodka pasta in a creamy tomato sauce, with a spoon dipping into the pan for serving and fresh rosemary on top.
Creamy penne with vodka sauce is a classic for good reason.

Pasta with vodka

What does vodka do to pasta sauce?

Vodka is used as a liquid to meld with cream and tomato in pasta sauce. The alcohol dissipates during the cooking process, leaving behind a subtle flavor. In theory, infused vodkas such as red pepper or herb vodkas will add more flavor to pasta sauces.

But, does vodka sauce really need vodka to taste really delicious? The answer is no! One reason I created this recipe is that at some point we started using gin as our “house” spirit instead of plain, neutral-tasting vodka.

(It could have been the grapefruit-scented Italian greyhounds I was drinking a while back, which led to a negroni habit.)

Having gin on hand led to experimenting. Sure enough, I found gin is a perfect ingredient to use to cook the classic “vodka” pasta sauce.

Photo of a bowl and a fork with a serving of penne alla vodka, including a glass of red wine, rosemary sprigs and crushed chili pepper on the side.

Like vodka, gin has a clear color. The difference is that basic vodka doesn’t have much taste, but gin has herbal and botanical notes that add complexity.

Vodka simply can’t match that flavor-wise. That said, if you only have vodka in your kitchen, please use it! And don’t worry — you will not get drunk from a plate penne vodka, I promise.

I thew in a bit of chopped fresh rosemary to the sauce. It’s not authentic in vodka sauce, but rosemary is an herb that always reminds me of gin’s piney-fresh juniper scent. Feel free to omit it, or simply garnish the finished dish with fresh chopped parsley or basil leaves.

Alcohol-free penne alla vodka sauce

If you’re craving pasta with vodka sauce but happen to be avoiding alcohol in all forms, you can easily use an equal amount of vegetable or chicken stock in its place.

More craveable pasta recipes:

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Penne alla “Vodka” with Creamy Tomato Sauce

Karen Tedesco
You must try this delicious twist on a classic vodka pasta sauce! The secret to the incredibly tasty cream sauce is that it uses gin instead of vodka, along with tomato puree and fresh rosemary. This dish is makes a quick, plush-tasting pasta dinner you'll crave again and again.
Print Pin
4.80 from 29 votes
Prep Time 5 mins
Cook Time 15 mins
Total Time 20 mins
Course Pasta
Cuisine Italian
Servings 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 12 ounces (350 g) dried penne, ziti or other tubular shaped pasta
  • 3 tablespoons (45 g) butter
  • ½ cup finely chopped onion or shallot
  • ½ cup (125 ml) gin or plain vodka
  • 1 ¼ cups (300 g) tomato passata or puree
  • 1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream
  • ½-1 teaspoon crushed red chili pepper, to your taste
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary, plus more for garnish
  • Salt
  • ¼ cup (25 g) freshly grated Parmesan cheese , plus more for serving

Instructions 

  • Bring 5-6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot along with 3 tablespoons salt. Cook the pasta according to package directions until al dente, about 10 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, melt the butter over medium-high heat in a wide pan large enough to hold the pasta. Add the onion and cook 1 minute, or until softened.  Pour in the gin and lower the heat to medium-low. Gently simmer for 3 minutes.
  • Add the tomatoes, cream, red pepper, rosemary and ½ teaspoon salt. Simmer for 10 minutes to thicken the sauce.
  • When the pasta is done, drain it and add to the pan. Reduce heat to low, add the cheese and stir until pasta is coated with the sauce. Serve with additional cheese and rosemary on top.

Karen’s Notes and Tips

  • Make the sauce 1-3 days ahead. Reheat it in a small pan, adding 1-2 tablespoons water or broth as needed if has thickened too much. Cook the pasta and immediately toss with the sauce.
  • If you don’t have fresh rosemary, simply garnish the finished dish with fresh chopped parsley or basil leaves.
  • Non-dairy option: We successfully used creamy unsweetened oat milk instead of cream and olive oil instead of butter.

Nutrition

Serving: 1serving | Calories: 661kcal | Carbohydrates: 75g | Protein: 17g | Fat: 26g | Saturated Fat: 15g | Sodium: 168mg | Potassium: 649mg | Fiber: 5g | Sugar: 8g | Vitamin A: 1435IU | Vitamin C: 11mg | Calcium: 164mg | Iron: 3mg
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Hey, I’m Karen

Creator of Familystyle Food

I’m a food obsessed super-taster and professionally trained cook ALL about making cooking fun and doable, with easy to follow tested recipes and incredibly tasty food! Read more about me here.

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8 Comments

  1. This was so good! I made a vegan version with cashew cream and vegan parmesan and butter. Also used some vegetable bouillon granules for some extra savory flavor. Amazing, definitely a lot of complex herbal, citrus and pine notes.

  2. 5 stars
    Just made this for dinner with oat milk and was so easy it turned out SO good!

  3. Thanks for coming up with this recipie. Being from an Italian-Argentinian background, when I moved to the US and quickly vsaw vodka sauce was the “the thing,” I thought, vodka? Really? No way Its neutral profile is anathema! I always thought gin is a much better option. It really makes sense what you say about the rosemary’s piney notes enhancing the gin’s juniper scent. Looks like a total winner. Can’t wait to make it! Thanks again;

  4. Great recipe! Just made it for the first time. I took the liberty in adding 1/2 tsp. garlic powder and 1 tsp. oregano.

    5 stars!

  5. Is penne vodka rly a throwback?

  6. Oh, I’ll have some of that! (and there will be negronis here when you get here!)