In the 1980s, long before he became a New York chef, a young Iacopo Falai lived across the hall from a hip uncle who sometimes made penne alla vodka for dinner. The combination of tomato, cream and chile wasn’t traditional by any means, especially in Florence, where he lived, but his uncle was a travel-loving caterer who introduced Mr. Falai to a world of foods.
He had a particular point, Mr. Falai said: It doesn’t matter where a dish is made, as long as it’s delicious.
Some might assume that penne alla vodka is an ancient Roman pasta, but it gained popularity only in the ’70s and ’80s. The documentary “Disco Sauce: The Unbelievable True Story of Penne Alla Vodka” explores the dish’s many origin stories, from Italy to the United States, but none are definitive.
One of the first written accounts of vodka in creamy tomato pasta comes from the 1974 cookbook and memoir “L’Abbuffone” (later translated to English as “The Injester”). In it, the Italian actor Ugo Tognazzi has a recipe for pasta all’infuriata, “furious pasta,” essentially a pasta all’arrabbiata with a splash of Polish chile-vodka.
In cooking, especially in penne alla vodka, deglazing a pan with liquor has many powers. Wine works, too, but a clean-tasting vodka has mostly water and ethanol (a solvent), which is excellent at carrying aromatic compounds — like those in tomatoes. In other words, the vodka in this dish can help you smell, and in turn taste, the sauce’s flavors in a heightened way.
According to the Journal of Food Science, the ethanol also helps more evenly disperse the fat, keeping the emulsified sauce bound, glossy and creamy.
So if you wish to taste the full impact of pork fat, red-pepper flakes and brick-red tomato paste blushed with cream, add a little vodka to your sauce (or a lot, as this recipe calls for). It’ll help you taste everything even more. But remember: Even vodka that has been cooked down, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, still retains some of its alcohol content after as long as an hour.
In this recipe, the ricotta serving suggestion is inspired by the pappa al pomodoro, a bread-thickened tomato soup, at the now closed Caffe Falai in Manhattan’s NoLIta neighborhood. There, dollops of ricotta lent coolness both in temperature and in flavor, relief between bites of bold savoriness.
Vodka sauce became a source of comfort for Mr. Falai, even years later as the culinary director for SA Hospitality Group (Casa Lever, Sant Ambroeus, Felice). Recently in Milan, Mr. Falai made his own take on penne alla vodka using mostaccioli penne, which is larger and smoother, and “with great texture when you bite,” he said.
The vodka in that sauce lent a “lightness of acidity,” Mr. Falai added. It might not be an Italian ingredient, but at least it’s delicious.