Pipe rigate with tomato vodka sauce
The wildest thing about this dish is that it was made for dancing.
Nobody quite agrees on whose recipe it is, or precisely when it started being served, but there is broad agreement that its popularity came from the Italian discotheques that thrived in America in the 1980s. You can see it now: tight shirts and mirrored surfaces and little stains of red sauce down the front.
My favourite history of vodka sauce involves the actor Ugo Tognazzi, who some claim invented the dish in his 1974 food memoir L’Abbuffone. This seems ridiculous, but why not? Tognazzi was a wry, almost mocking figure on screen, a handsome man who seemed to make fun of the masculinity around him, and off screen he loved to cook. He was famous for his parties, for cooking at his own premieres, for asking friends to score his food in secret ballots. When it was finally released in English, L’Abbuffone was titled The Injester.
Alternative histories place the development of the dish as far back as the 1960s, in either Rome or Bologna. A more depressing story has it being developed by a vodka company trying to break into the Italian market. Either way, it has become a staple of the Italian–American kitchen.
My interest in vodka sauce probably started at Carbone, the upscale pasta restaurant in Greenwich Village. Pretty much every table in the place orders the rigatoni vodka. It’s silky – a result of the lusciousness of the vodka – with a little stab of heat from the chilli. When I started experimenting, I decided to bake the dish, to add a little crust to that softness.
There’s nothing too tricky here. The dish is for nightclub dancers after all. The best tip is to not be afraid to darken the tomato paste in the pan. Giving it a little colour will deepen the complexity of the whole dish, adding a richness to the slipperiness of the vodka and cream.
Time: 30 minutes preparation + 30 minutes cooking
- 3 tbsp butter
- 2 onions, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced
- 1 tsp crushed chilli flakes
- 170g tomato paste
- 1 x 400g tin of tomatoes
- ¼ cup vodka
- 1 cup cream
- 500g dry rigate pasta
- 120g grated parmesan or Grana Padano
- In a medium-size saucepan melt the butter over a medium heat. Add the onions and cook until soft and a light golden colour. Add the garlic and chilli and cook for three to four minutes until fragrant.
- Add the tomato paste and cook for three to five minutes, stirring frequently, until caramelised. Add the tomatoes and, along with the vodka, half a cup of water. Bring to a simmer, and place a lid on the saucepan and gently simmer.
- After 10 minutes, add the cream, bring back to a simmer and cook for one minute. Remove the sauce from the heat.
- When cool, transfer to a blender and puree until smooth. Strain the sauce through a fine sieve and return to the pan. Now bring the sauce to a simmer and add a pinch of salt to taste. If you prefer a spicier sauce, you can add a touch more chilli at this point. The sauce should not be too thick. If it is, add a few tablespoons of water to loosen the texture.
- When the sauce is finished, cook the pasta in plenty of salted water and strain just before it reaches al dente. It is important not to overcook the pasta as it will cook further when it is baked in the oven.
- Toss the strained pasta in the sauce and stir well until it is evenly coated. Transfer the pasta to a heat-proof baking dish and spread it one layer thick. Cover with the Grana Padano and bake in a hot oven for about five minutes, or place under a grill until the top is golden.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "Let’s dance".
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