Is Penne alla Vodka A Traditional Italian Dish?

February 18, 2011

Is Penne alla vodka a traditional dish found on menus across the Italian boot? The answer depends on who you talk to.

Certainly it is a dish that frequently appears on Italian American restaurant menus. I personally have never seen this dish on any menu in Italy. I have asked countless Italians friends from the north to the south if they know of this dish and they just give me a quizzical look. Penne alla vodka is nothing more than a tomato sauce laced with cream, vodka and hot pepper paste. It’s used to dress a slant cut of pasta called penne (which means pen). According to some foodies, the original recipe called for pepper flavored vodka, but now hot pepper paste has taken its place.

In the research that I have done, it appears that this dish was introduced into Italy sometime in the early 1970s. It was brought by vodka distillers who wanted restaurants and their chefs to promote the consumption of vodka to the Italians. Besides enjoying it in chilled vodka glasses, they even suggested that Italian chefs dream up ways to cook with it! So this may have been when penne alla vodka appeared in Italy.

The craze did not last long because Italians are very fussy and traditional when it comes to tinkering with their national dish. They frequently add wine to tomato sauce but vodka? Not in my grandmother’s day. How about the cream? Again, tomato sauce hails from the south of Italy, particularly the region of Campania and being of Neapolitan ancestry, I can tell you that cream is not a traditional ingredient in tomato sauce.

The debate will rage on but meanwhile if you want to make this dish, here is my take on it.

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