Watching the very enjoyable 2007 film Zodiac for the first time, I caught a significant anachronism. The character played by Chloë Sevigny orders “penne in a vodka sauce” at a dinner date in 1970 in San Francisco (seemingly at the Original Joe’s, meant to be in the Tenderloin). That dish was likely not created until 1979.
Patricia Wells in her Trattoria: Healthy, Simple, Robust Fare Inspired By the Small Family Restaurants of Italy published in 1993 – which has many terrific and relatively straightforward recipes, by the way – relates that Alla Vecchia Bettola, a trattoria in Florence that opened in 1979, created penne in vodka sauce featuring tomato and cream seemingly soon after opening. This dish began to appear on menus in America in the 1980s. Lidia Bastianich asserts otherwise. She writes inLidia’s Italian-American, “I found myself making this innovative dish, which always charmed our customers, quite a bit in the early 1970s.” I have not been able to find a menu prior to the 1980s that served pasta with a vodka sauce, so I don’t put any stock in Bastianich’s claim.
Coming from Florence is rather odd, especially for a restaurant like Alla Vecchia Bettola that currently touts “vecchio sapore toscano,” and is reputably popular with locals in its Oltrarno neighborhood. This preparation is hardly typically Tuscan, or very old. A dish with both commercial pasta and tomatoes is unusual coming north of Rome. Vodka is not Italian at all. A Russian staple, its use might belie Communist sympathies, long fashionable among a large subset of northern gastronomes. Creamy and tomato-y, it could have been created to appeal to American tourists who crowd Florence each year.
The Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten, has even filmed an episode on her Food Network show making a version of penne in vodka sauce inspired by the eponymous one at the Alla Vecchia Bettola restaurant. Here is a simpler version that still tastes very good.
Penne in Vodka Sauce
garlic – 3 cloves, minced
red pepper flakes – 1 teaspoon
oregano, dried – ½ teaspoon
peeled tomatoes – 1 28-ounce can
vodka – 1 cup
heavy cream – 1 cup
penne – 1 pound
- Melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat, add the onions and cook for about 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes – crushing them in the pan – red pepper flakes, dried oregano, vodka and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes.
- Cook the pasta in plenty of salted water.
- Place the tomato mixture in a blender and puree until the sauce is smooth.
- Add the cream and simmer for about 7 minutes.
- Add the drained pasta, toss well, add black pepper, and cook for another minute.
- Serve with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.