A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

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Entry from December 30, 2008
Vodka Sauce (Penne alla Vodka; Rigatoni alla Vodka)

Vodka sauce began being served with pasta (such as “penne all vodka” or “rigatoni alla vodka”) at New York-area restaurants in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The alcoholic content of the vodka is mostly, but not entirely, burned in the cooking process; some cooks feel that the vodka enhances flavor. Vodka sauce is a specialty from northern Italy and was popularized in the 1970s in Bologna.
The color of vodka sauce is often a distinct pink. Heublein (manufacturer of Smirnoff vodka) promoted a “Shrimps Vodka” recipe as early as the 1960s.
Vodka Sauce
A creamy smooth textured pasta sauce that goes well with penne, ravioli, rigatonni, tortellini, or ziti pasta as well as on some poultry dishes or bruschetta appetizers. Rich in flavor, this sauce typically contains tomatoes, cream, vodka, olive oil, garlic, onions, and seasonings. Parmesan, pecorino or Romano cheese and meats such as prosciutto are also additional ingredients that may be included in some vodka sauces.
Wikipedia: Penne alla vodka
Penne alla vodka is an Italian pasta dish always made with vodka and penne pasta often with heavy cream, crushed tomatoes, garlic powder and sometimes sausage.
According to Pasquale Bruno, Jr., author of “The Ultimate Pasta Cookbook,” penne alla vodka was invented at Dante, a restaurant in Bologna, Italy.
Other historians of the culinary arts recognize James Doty, a graduate of Columbia University, as the inventor of penne a la vodka.
Paula Franzese, a law professor, claims that her father Luigi Franzese, born in Naples, Italy in 1931, devised the first incarnation of penne alla vodka, which he called penne alla Russia because of the addition of the vodka to his tomato and cream sauce base. He first prepared the dish table side for patrons at New York City’s Orsini’s restaurant in the early 1970s. Orsini’s, owned by Armando and Elio Orsini, was one of the most acclaimed restaurants of its time, hosting regulars that included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Mick Jagger and scores of literary, entertainment and business icons. Word of penne alla Russia quickly spread, and soon it began appearing on other menus throughout the New York region. Franzese was asked to appear on various talk shows to demonstrate his magic in the kitchen. The most memorable of these appearances is found on The Joe Franklin Show.
The Williams Sonoma Essentials of Italian cookbook says that it was invented in the 1980s by a Roman chef for a vodka company that wanted to popularize its product in Italy.
Arthur Schwartz (TheFoodMaven.com)
Penne alla Vodka
Serves 4
This is not a traditional Italian recipe. I know because I was there—more or less—at its invention. It was the early 1970s and vodka was a relatively new spirit to Italians. To promote the consumption of vodka in Italy, vodka distillers provided restaurants with gizmos that kept both the vodka and vodka glasses chilled and they held recipe contests among Italian chefs. This dish was the rage in fashion-conscious Italian circles in the mid ‘70s. I never see it anymore in Italy. But Americans are entranced by the idea, even though it is nothing more than a tomato cream sauce with hot pepper and a good dose of vodka, which, to be frank, is hardly detectable in the finished dish.
To be totally historically correct, I should add that the hot pepper is a late addition. The original recipe was made with pepper-flavored vodka. (Recipe follows—ed.)
29 May 1969, Yuma (AZ) Daily Sun, pg. 6, col. 1:
This particular menu, from the Heuplin, Inc. (Heublein, manufacturer of Smirnoff vodka—ed.) people in Hartford, Conn., is dubbed “an elegant caviar brunch on a bean budget.”
Sans caviar, it begins with shrimps in vodka sauce
One pound large shrimps (about 20), in a shell, washed and dried; 4 talbespoons butter.
Over high heat, saute shrimps in butter for 5 minutes.
Deglaze with seasoned vodka (recipe follows); 2 tablespoons bottled Sauce Diable; 1/4 cup chicken broth; 1 teaspoon salt. Cook together for 10 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon vodka mixture and boil up again.
Serve in the sauce, or on sticks to dip in sauce. Shrimps to be eaten in the fingers. They take on even more delicious flavor if left to marinate in the sauce until serving time and simply heated again. Makes 4 servings.
Seasoned vodka: Take a bottle or part bottle of vodka, either 100 proof or 80 proof will do. Peel an orange and a lemon without breaking the peel. Put it in the bottle, anchoring at the top with a thread. I added also sliced onion, whole cloves of garlic, a dried red pepper and a half dozen peppercorns, bay leaf and a tall branch of rosemary. This makes a very flavorsome vehicle. However, putting it out of the drinking class (the orange-lemon vodka is a good drink), marinate the shrimp for an hour or so with the same ingredients, then deglaze. (Take the pan off the fire, add season vodka, and flame it. Be very careful because the mixture flames very high and could leave you browless.) We have discovered that vodka is a sure-fire flame-aid which does not change flavor, but gives timid and slow-burning liqueurs and cordials the push they need.
28 November 1976, Lowell (MA) Sun, pg. C2, cols. 3-4:
The Appetizer chapter contains such culinary surprises as Quail’s eggs in Green Vodka Sauce,...
(The Blue Strawberry Cookbook by James Haller—ed.)
4 June 1978, New York (NY) Times, “Dining Out: Capable of High Notes” by FLorence Fabricant, pg. LI15:
The pasta dishes we had as curtain-raisers (shared portions) included rigatoni alla vodka in a sauce that was overpowered by an alcoholic taste,...
New York (NY) Times
May 24, 1981, Sunday
COMPARED with some honeymoon palaces in the Poconos or catering establishments on the Island, La Romantica in Copiague is almost subdued. Still, it does not let the romantic scene go to waste.
Penne alla vodka was in a sauce that tasted like an alcoholic Alfredo, an unresolved mixture of cream, cheese and spirits.
New York (NY) Times
RESTAURANTS; by Moir; Lively brasserie and popular Italian.
Published: June 30, 1981
JOANNA, a new restaurant on the ground floor of an old warehouse building on Fifth Avenue and 18th Street, is a big, lively brasserie.
Penne in vodka failed; it was tasteless and overcooked.
New York (NY) Times
Published: August 2, 1981
Rigatoni alla vodka was a pasta special one evening. This dish, in which a generous splash of vodka enriches a creamy tomato sauce, has become enormously popular on the Island. Its origins are obscure. Perhaps the idea of vodka combined with pasta intrigues people, but invariably the dish emerges a bland disappointment. Unfortunately, at La Galleria it was no exception.
New York (NY) Times
Published: September 30, 1981
What of his risotto with strawberries or his mussels in orange sauce or his pasta dish, penne alla vodka? ‘‘The Romans cooked with fruit and spirits, and Italians ate very well before Marco Polo and before the tomato came over from America,’’ he replied.
11 March 1982, Chicago (IL) Daily Herald, section 5, pg. 14, col. 4:
Instead of the heavy, long cimmered dishes many Americans associate with Italian fare, a northern Italian or Cucina Nuova meal might include a first course of pasta with a little cream, lemon juice and vodka for a sauce.
New York (NY) Times
By BRYAN MILLER (NYT); Weekend Desk
October 7, 1983, Friday
Late City Final Edition, Section C, Page 18, Column 4, 597 words
PASTA with sweet red pepper sauce, pasta with salmon, pasta with sage sauce, pasta with vodka sauce - and this is just the beginning.
30 November 1983, Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard, “Some New Cuisine Italian Style” by Jeanne Lesem (UPI Family Editor), pg. P14, col. 2:
NEW YORK—The wives of two American diplomats who met in Rome five years ago have written a cookbook with recipes that include pasta with vodka sauce and rice with strawberries.
Both are examples of nuova cucina, Italian for new cuisine.
(Pasta and Rice Italian Style by Efrem Funghi Calingaert and Jacquelyn Days Serwer—ed.)
3 February 1984, Chicago (IL) Daily Herald, section 5, pg. 7, col. 2:
George’s, 230 W. Kinzie, Chicago, introduces new northern italian specialties. (...) Pasta dishes feature cappellini with vegetables Gorgonzola and fedellini with vodka sauce.
Google Books
8 April 1985, New York magazine, pg. 57, col. 1:
Bland mushroom salad (a splash of oil helps), Caesar salad marred by second-rate leaves of romaine, thin penne in a vodka sauce that tastes like Campbell’s cream-of-tomato soup,...
(Lusardi’s, 1494 Second Avenue, near 78th Street—ed.)
Google Books
Frommer’s Dollarwise Guide to Bermuda and the Bahamas
By Darwin Porter
Published by Frommer/Pasmantier Publishers
Pg. 176:
Or perhaps Pino’s tagliatelle alla vodka will tempt you.
Google Books
7 December 1987, New York magazine, pg. 201, col. 2:
CINE CITIA—1134 First Ave., bet. 62nd-63rd Sts. (486-6226). Casual. Northern Italian. Spcls: penne alla vodka,...
6 March 1989, Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard, “Italian cuisine needn;t be fattening” by Deborah Hartz, pg. D7, col. 2:
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
1/4 cup vodka
2 cups prepared spaghetti sauce
Hot red pepper flakes to taste
1 bay leaf
1 container (15 ounces) ricotta cheese
2 to 3 sprigs fresh Italian parsley, minced
1 package (18 ounces) penne or ziti
In medium skillet over medium heat, heat butter and oil. Add shallots, saute 5 minutes. Stir in vodka; cook until evaporated. Add spaghetti sauce, hot pepper flakes and bay leaf; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer 15 minutes, remove bay leaf. Stir in ricotta and parsley; remove from heat and keep warm.
Meanwhile, cook pasta, following package directions; drain and serve with sauce. Makes 6 servings.
New York (NY) Times
Published: November 29, 2000
Vodka to the Rescue
Q. Since vodka is tasteless and most of its alcohol evaporates in cooking, what do you gain by adding vodka to a tomato sauce for pasta?
A. The alcohol in the vodka enhances the flavor of the tomatoes. Some flavors are alcohol-soluble, meaning that they will be released only by the addition of alcohol. Vodka can help bring out these flavors without contributing another flavor, as wine or brandy would.
So a tomato sauce made with a touch of vodka can be slightly more intense than one made without. This is a particular boon if you are using less than perfectly ripe, late-summer tomatoes, which may need that flavor boost.
General Chowhounding Topics - Chowhound
Vodka Sauce… what’s the point?
Vodka is a nearly colorless, nearly flavorless, nearly odorless distilled spirit. When you add heat (and especially if you flame it) there is even less flavor and odor, with the alcohol gone. So why add it to a nice tomato cream (pink) sauce anyway?
When I first heard of Vodka Sauce, I thought it was a recently invented gimmick. This was the 80’s when the USA was starting to wake up to the wonders of food, and almost anything was accepted, even lionized. (remember the blackening craze!?)
Can anyone confirm when vodka sauce was invented? And why?! Does it exist to sell vodka? Or maybe so tough guys don’t have to ask for “pink sauce?!”
The Engineer Jul 25, 2006 10:55PM
Supposedly vodka sauce was invented in the late 1970s as a marketing tie-in for a vodka distiller. In Italy. It got swept up in the Nuova Cucina movement in Italy, then ended up as a trendy menu item in the US, where it took off a bit more strongly than in Italy—but has thankfully waned. I prefer adding wine to Italian sauces, but I can see how a tomato-and-cream sauce might need the alcohol in vodka and not need the extra flavors wine would impart….
rjw_lgb_ca 25, 2006 11:15PM
One of my favorite Italian cookbooks, published in 1982 refers to pasta with vodka sauce as the “latest thing”. To be fair to the sauce, I think the vodka gives it a slightly bitter undertone that keeps tomatoes and cream from becoming too cloying - and don’t forget the red pepper!
bropaul Jul 26, 2006 01:36AM
I was born and lived most of my life in Italy, My grandparents own a little resturante in Italy for almost 60years. salsa alla vodka panna “Vodka sauce” is not a gimmick, nor, was it invented to tell Vodka. My grandparents were making vodka sauce since before it was “Offically” invented in Bologna, Italy in the 1970’s. The Vodka is used to release the acids and flavor in the sauce and also to enhance the sweetness of the cream even vodka dosent have a flavor on its own when mixed with the other ingredeints it has a flavor enhancer. True Vodka sauce is more complex then what how people make it in America, In Italy you start by using fresh tomatoes then peel,puree and cook for about an hour on low (this is just to get the natural waters out of the fruit, then you add your spices/procsciutto and Vodka (1 Pint (80-100proof italian vodka) per 64-72oz of tomatoe sauce) and let simmer for an hour or until you can no longer taste the Vodka then you lightly wipe the cream and add to the sause let simmer covered for another 30mintues-hour and then serve. The end result with be a richer/bolder/velvety sauce that is pink/orange in color. In america it is put together within an hour using canned tomatoe sause (not talking about the Crush/peeled uncooked Tomatoes in the can)
Guarcz Sep 29, 2006 02:40PM
However long people in some parts of Italy were making it, penne alla wodka became trendy due to an advertsing campaign. The typical recipe had a modest amount of vodka added just before the pan came off the heat so you could still taste it.
Robert Lauriston Sep 29, 2006 06:23PM
i think there are going to be a fair number of other posters who had the same experience: a lot of us were subjected to lectures, in the course of reviewing for our professional certification, by a woman who claimed that her father invented vodka sauce while working for a nyc restaurant in the 1970s. of course i have no way of verifying the truth of that…
someone else evidently had the same question, though: http://www.thekitchn.com/thekitchn/go...
the answer from that site:
“Dear Sarah,
“We asked two prominent food historians, and neither knew the answer, although referred us to the Wikipedia entry that we’d also found, which mentions Paula Franzese and her claim that her father, Luigi, invented Penne alla Vodka when he had a flask of vodka on him and needed to thin a sauce.
“The entry adds “However, most historians of the culinary arts credit Chef James Doty with the discovery of the dish.”
“There is also a list on foodtimeline.org of references to vodka in sauces that might be of interest.
“Arthur Schwartz also refers to the invention of the dish in the headnote to his recipe, but does not mention any names or specific dates beyond “the mid ‘70s.”
cimui Aug 25, 2008 11:19PM
New York (NY) Times
At the Stove, a Dash of Science, a Pinch of Folklore
Published: January 5, 2009
Ms. Corriher had an explanation. It was not the flavor of the wine that was important, but what it did. Alcohol is a solvent. “Some compounds dissolve in water,” she said. “Some dissolve in fat. But alcohol dissolves both fat-soluble compounds and water-soluble compounds. You’re pulling flavor compounds out of the fish so that they can contribute to the flavor in the sauce.”
She recalled Patricia Wells, the Paris-based food writer, asking about the vodka in penne alla vodka: “She said, ‘Shirley, why is it that a little vodka in a tomato sauce makes such a huge difference in the taste of the sauce? I boil it after the vodka is added so most of the vodka is gone.’ But there’s obviously a compound in tomatoes that alcohol dissolves and pulls out into the sauce. And then it doesn’t matter what happens to alcohol. It’s done its job.”

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • Tuesday, December 30, 2008 • Permalink

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