Blog Post by Michele Di Pietro
Are the origins of vodka sauce Italian-American or Italian? It’s unclear and the answer depends largely on who you talk to.
There have been multiple claims to the invention of the dish, and some popular theories about where this vodka and cream-lased tomato sauce came from include the following:
· According to Pasquale Bruno Jr., author of The Ultimate Pasta Cookbook, penne alla vodka was invented in the 1970s at Dante, a restaurant in Bologna, Italy.
· In 1974, an early version of it called pasta all’infuriata appeared in the Italian actor Ugo Tognazzi’s cookbook L’Abbuffone. His recipe was made with penne, fresh peeled tomatoes, a shot of vodka, chili pepper, oil, garlic and bay leaves.
· The Williams Sonoma Essentials of Italian cookbook states that it was invented in the 1980s by a Roman chef for a vodka company that wanted to popularize its product in Italy.
· In her book Food for Friends, Barbara Kafka writes the dish was common in Italy before becoming popular in America in the early 1980s.
Whatever the case or its true origins, there is no doubt that it has become firmly entrenched as an Italian-American classic across most of the Italian enclaves here in the United States. And, let’s face it … IT. IS. GOOD.
Here’s a bit of the science behind this ubiquitous Italian-American classic:
· The ethanol in the vodka is thought to release flavors in the tomato that are normally inaccessible in water, without adding any additional flavor, such as wine would.
· It also acts as an emulsifier — normally, the acidity in the tomatoes would react with the oil in the cream and make it separate. The vodka helps to keep the sauce stable.
As for the specific recipe itself, I feel like there are as many variations to a Pasta with Vodka Sauce recipe as there are version of homemade sauce.
· Some are more like a cream sauce with a little tomato, whereas others are more like a tomato sauce with a little cream.
· Some are clearly spicy with a healthy dose of peperoncino.
· Many contain pancetta.
· Some are made with tomato paste as the only tomato product.
· Some have only a sprinkle of vodka and others contain lots of it, and sometimes white wine as well.
· There is no doubt, though, that the most common pasta shape paired with vodka sauce is penne (lisce or rigate).
I could go on and on…and, the debate about it will likely continue. But, in the meantime, if you would like to make this dish, here is my summery take on it, using fresh tomatoes and lots of sweet basil.
PASTA with FRESH TOMATO VODKA SAUCE
ITALIAN ENCLAVE: multiple
· 1 lb pasta + salt for pasta water
· 4 Tbsp olive oil + more for drizzling at end
· 1 ½ cup thinly sliced onions (about 1 medium onion)
· 4 cloves garlic, chopped
· ¼ cup tomato paste
· Pinch pepperoncino
· 1 ½ lb fresh tomato, cored and diced
· 1 cup vodka
· 1 cup heavy cream
· Salt and black pepper to taste
· ¾ cup grated pecorino romano cheese
· 1 cup fresh basil, chopped
· Bring large pot of salted water to a boil.
· Meanwhile, heat oil in large sauté pan on medium-high, then sauté onions and garlic until onions are translucent, but not brown (about 3-4 minutes).
· Add tomato paste and peperoncino and caramelize 1-2 minutes, then add tomatoes and vodka, increase heat and simmer until liquid is reduced by about ½, stirring frequently. (IMPORTANT: Make sure that the alcohol taste has been cooked out.)
· Reduce heat to medium, then add cream and simmer for about 5 minutes or until it thickens. Season with salt and pepper and remove pan from heat.
· Cook pasta in salted boiling water.
· About 2 minutes before pasta is al dente, return sauté pan to medium-high heat, then add 1/2-3/4c pasta water & the pasta to it, tossing it and allowing the pasta to finish cooking in the sauce & absorb all those wonderful flavors!
· Turn off heat, then mix in pecorino, herbs & an additional drizzle of olive oil. Buon Appetito!
By: Michele Di Pietro, IEHS Board Member
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