Penne alla Vodka

This penne alla vodka uses both whole tomatoes and tomato paste along with a splash of cream to make a vodka sauce with plenty of depth. The defining detail in this recipe is adding the zest of a lemon to the vodka. It lends a fragrant brightness to the whole preparation, making this family favorite extra special.

Penne alla Vodka

Hear me out. To make the best version of penne alla vodka the first step is to peel the skin from a lemon. Hand cut the peel into the thinnest strips (no pith!) and then place the zest into your vodka while you prep the rest of your ingredients. Using lemon-scented vodka flecked with zest in your creamy tomato vodka sauce is a game changer. There are a number of other considerations that I’ll outline below that help when you want to throw together this one-pot crowd-pleaser!

penne alla vodka in a large bowl

What Makes Great Penne all Vodka?

If you want to make great penne alla vodka, focus on the sauce. There are a number of ways to approach this Italian (and Italian-American) classic, popular in the 1980s. You’ll see versions made with canned tomatoes, while others exclusively use tomato paste. Some recipes call for a lot of tomatoes, others barely any. Some really go for it with heavy cream, I like to use just enough cream to create a rich, silky sauce without diluting the tomato flavor excessively. This recipe delivers a bright, rich tomato vodka sauce that clings beautifully to the pasta. The flavor has dimension from the two types of tomatoes used, and the scent (and bursts) of lemon zest.

Penne alla Vodka: The Ingredients

  • Dried penne pasta: Use a good-quality dried pasta here. Penne is the classic pasta shape to use, but rigatoni is another favorite. Something bite sized with lots of surface area for the vodka sauce to cling to is the key. For a bit of added nutrition, explore whole wheat pastas, or pasta made with lentils or chickpeas. A forever favorite of mine is the Monograno Felicetti Farro Penne Rigate.
    ingredients for cooking penne alla vodka including tomato paste, dried pasta, basil, and garlic
  • Tomato Paste: I tend to use the tiny cans of tomato paste here, because I use about ~1/3 cup. But if you have enough in a tube, that’s fine.
  • Canned Tomatoes: Look for good-quality whole canned tomatoes. I call for a 14-ounce can, but sometimes all you can find are 28-ounce cans of whole tomatoes. In this case, use
  • Heavy Cream: A pro-tip here is, avoid going overboard with the heavy cream. I see some recipes calling for upwards of a cup. You can use less, and maintain the creaminess you’re after. A bonus is your sauce will maintain beautiful color. Add too much cream and the sauce quickly changes to a soft pink, while the tomato flavor weakens.
  • Olive Oil or Butter: I tend to use olive oil when I make penne alla vodka, but butter is also wonderful. Use either.
  • Vodka: The vodka in penne alla vodka plays a few important roles. It heightens flavors when certain alcohol soluble compounds in the sauce ingredients are released by the vodka. It also helps to keep the sauce beautifully silky and emulsified. And yes, much of the vodka cooks off with a bit of time simmering.
  • Garlic, Onion, Chile Flakes, etc: I dial up the garlic for this recipe. It has time to soften and mellow, so don’t be alarmed. And the onions are diced, I like a really small dice here. So you’re getting onion bits throughout the sauce and not larger chunks.
penne alla vodka being served on a marble table set with plates and a cloth napkin


Here are some favorite variations on penne alla vodka that I’ve cooked over the years.

  • Penne alla Tequila: Quite honestly, I don’t tend to keep vodka in my pantry. So I have to plan ahead when I want to make this. In a pinch, if you have tequila and not vodka, go ahead and make the swap. Super good.
  • Make it Spicy: My favorite way to make penne alla vodka spice is to add a bit of spicy Calabrian pepper paste (the one I buy most is called Bomba di Calabria)) to the sauce at the same time the tomato paste is added. Go easy, some of these pastes are wildly spicy. A finishing drizzle of a spicy chile olive oil can add dimension and another layer of heat. I like Brightland’s chili olive oil for this (not sponsored, just a fan), or drizzle a few drops of oil from the jar of Calabrian pepper paste.
  • Make it Vegan: You can make this recipe vegan by skipping the Parmesan, using olive oil to simmer the onions, and using a cashew cream in place of heavy cream. To make cashew cream, soak 1 cup of cashews in 1 cup of water for thirty minutes or so. Puree in high-speed blends until silky smooth.
penne alla vodka in a bowl with creamy sauce finished with lots of Parmesan cheese

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Penne alla Vodka

5 from 8 votes

The thing that makes this recipe special is the addition of lemon-infused vodka. I like to use a vegetable peeler to strip the peel from the lemon (not the white pith). Hand cut it into thin, zesty flecks. Hand cutting the zest ensures you get juicy lemon bursts in your vodka sauce. That said, if you’re in a rush to get dinner on the table, no problem, use a Microplane grater!

  • zest of one lemon
  • 1/3 cup vodka
  • 1 14- ounce can whole tomatoes
  • 1 pound of dried penne, rigatoni, or gemelli
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or butter
  • 1 medium onion or 3 medium shallots, diced
  • 8 medium cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon red chile flakes
  • 1/3 cup tomato paste
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream, plus more if you like
  • 1 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
  • Plenty of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • Fresh basil, slivered
  1. Combine the lemon and vodka in a small cup and set aside.
  2. Place the canned whole tomatoes (and juices) in a medium bowl and puree with a hand blender. Set aside.
  3. Cook the pasta in well-salted water, until just done. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water, and set aside. Drain the pasta.
  4. In the now empty pasta pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and chile flakes, and cook until tender - 4 to 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir until uniform. Stir in the vodka until everything comes together into a cohesive sauce. Add the pureed tomatoes, and gently simmer for another minute or two. Stir in the heavy cream. Season to taste with the salt.
  5. Add the drained pasta to the pot and toss well to coat with the vodka sauce. Add a splash (or more) of the reserved pasta water to loosen things up a bit, you might not need the whole cup. Continue cooking for another minute or so until everything is hot. Taste and add more salt if needed.
  6. Serve in bowls showered with Parmesan and basil.

Serves 6.

Prep Time
10 mins
Cook Time
20 mins
Total Time
30 mins
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5 from 8 votes (5 ratings without comment)
Recipe Rating


My husband and I were having a drink last night at an Italian restaurant that offered a plant based version of a vodka sauce pasta dish. Though tempted to order it, I had recently seen your version and went home to make it.
Loved the addition of lemon! I used almond milk yogurt instead of cream and homemade vegan Parmesan made from cashews and nutritional yeast. I will make this again! Thank you!!5 stars


    Sounds great Molly! And way to go with the homemade Parmesan!

    Heidi Swanson

Heidi, I just made this more or less as written. I omitted the onion and reduced the garlic because I avoid alliums. Dialed up the heat. Used some vodka that has been collecting dust on my bar cart. Oh and I used whole milk because that’s what I had. A fantastic easy weeknights comfort meal. Thanks!5 stars

    The best use for vodka lol.

    Heidi Swanson

Thanks for the trip back down memory lane. This was a dish we had quite often back in the 80’s. I usually do not have Vodka in the house, but I do have Tequila, esp. the 21Seeds Cucumber Jalapeno Tequila. That one worked beautiful here, adding a nice kick.5 stars


    Brilliant! I can imagine the jalapeno being a bonus!

    Heidi Swanson

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