It is said that Pasta Alla Vodka originated at Orsini Restaurant in New York, where it is believed that Chef Luigi Franzese invented the dish in the 1970s. Although there are often conflicting claims to the invention and history of the dish, one author claims that it was invented at Dante, a restaurant in Bologna, Italy.
Most recipes that call for alcohol—wine, beer, or a spirit—do so because of the respective flavor that gets added. Not so for vodka. Vodka sauce is a pink sauce with a splash of booze that exists somewhere between a tomato sauce and an Alfredo sauce. Denser milk products (such as cream) can separate, especially when an acid (like tomatoes) is introduced.
Vodka acts as an emulsifier, bonding water and fat together until they exist in smooth harmony preventing the cream from separating. This is the same principle at work when you add dijon mustard to a vinaigrette to keep your oil from separating from your vinegar. And because vodka is an excellent solvent (alcohol is the catalyst in bitters, tinctures, elixirs, and many herbal cure-alls), it extracts flavors and aromas from herbs and spices where water alone can’t.
“Vodka adds depth to a sauce both by pulling out the additional flavor and concentrating others without adding a flavor of its own,” says Bart Saracino, co-owner of Bartolino’s Restaurants in St. Louis.
So should you use a cheap or expensive vodka? Don’t skimp because you’ll likely be the one to drink the rest of the bottle. I drove to Defiance, Missouri, to grab a bottle of Judgment Tree Vodka from my sweet friend Chris Lorch. Chris is the co-founder of the Distillery of Defiance and the head winemaker for Sugar Creek Winery. I have known Chris since college and am lucky to run into him every once in a while! His place in Defiance is warm and inviting. And his vodka, made from grapes, has a refined smoothness and distinct but subtle nuances and complexities.
Judgment Tree is a historical reference in these parts and is an homage to the great explorer and pioneer Daniel Boone. When Boone moved to Missouri, he settled in the township of Defiance near the Missouri River and the Femme Osage District. In June of 1800, Daniel was appointed to the position of Spanish Commandant of the Femme Osage District. At that time, his district was a region running indefinitely west and north along the north side of the Missouri River.
In this role, Boone acted as the district’s civil administrator and military commander, as well as having the dual role of Spanish Syndic (Judge) of civil disputes. In his role, he held court under the large elm “Boone Judgment Tree.” (1)
As always, tag me if you make it, and let me know what you think! And if you’re from St. Louis or ever in town visiting, be sure to head out to Defiance, stop by the Judgment Tree memorial, and stop in and see Chris. Tell him Stephanie sent you!
Pasta alla Vodka
- 2 tablespoon butter
- 5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 medium onion, minced
- 1 4.5-oz. tube or ½ cup double-concentrated or regular tomato paste
- Healthy pinch red pepper flakes
- 1/3 cup quality vodka
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 cup reserved pasta water
- 1 can whole crushed tomatoes (28 ounces)
- Coarse kosher salt (Morton’s or Diamond) and pepper
- 16 ounces pasta, such as penne rigate or rigatoni
- 1/2 cup heavy cream (I use Silk brand plant-based whipping cream)
- 1/3 cup fresh basil leaves (torn or shredded)
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese, plus more for serving (I used Violife)
- Fill a stock pot or other large pot three-quarters full with water and heat over high. Toss in a handful of salt and bring the water to a boil. Add pasta. Cook pasta al dente. This usually is about 2 minutes before full cooking time. When the pasta is done, do NOT drain the pasta water.
- Firmly smash 4 garlic cloves with the flat side of a chef’s knife and remove the peel. Carefully slice into thin slices.
- Peel and dice onion.
- Grate 4 oz of vegan parmesan (I used Violife Parmesan)
- Heat butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until onion starts to brown around the edges, for 5–7 minutes.
- Add the entire 4.5-oz. tube of tomato paste and red pepper flakes. Stir until paste evenly coats onion. Continue to cook. Stirring often until the paste is deep red and starting to brown on the bottom of the pot, 5–7 minutes.
- Add vodka and balsamic vinegar to deglaze the pan, scrape the bottom well, and stir. Add tomatoes and cook for about 10 minutes.
- Remove from heat and add 1 cup of the pasta water. Stir well.
- Transfer tomato mixture to a food processor or blender, and add basil and purée until smooth. Return the sauce to the pan.
- Add 1/4 cup of warm pasta water to your cream to keep it from breaking apart. Add warmed cream to the vodka sauce.
- Cook until warmed through, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in parmesan cheese and then use a spider or a slotted spoon to remove pasta from the water and add to the sauce.
- Toss to combine.
- Serve immediately with an additional sprinkle of cheese and basil, if desired.