Penne Vodka for the One You Love

July 20, 2001: the greatest first date of my life. A stranger picked me up at the airport and took me out for a big bowl of penne vodka.

Knowing what I know now about Dan’s eating habits and my compulsion to try every item on any given menu, it’s almost laughable that we both chose the same thing for our first meal together.

penne vodka
Photo: Casey Barber

But penne vodka was the fated accompaniment to our first face-to-face conversation after six months of emails that turned into IM chats that turned into phone calls that turned into one drunken purchase of a plane ticket to New Jersey.

He was a sports copyeditor at a newspaper in New Jersey; I was a journalism grad student in Chicago.

Fumbling for sources on an assignment, I posted questions online, praying for a few quotable responses and insight from the collective wisdom of the web. Dan was one of the four people who responded.

penne vodka
Photo: Casey Barber

Unfailingly polite, he answered all my questions about writing habits with sincerity, and then threw in the killer line:

“I intend to write for a long time, and to be able to look back on it the way Kerouac hoped to look back on his writing: ‘In my old age,’ he wrote, ‘I intend to collect all my work and reinsert my pantheon of uniform names, leave the long shelf full of books there, and die happy.’ ”

I looked at the Kerouac poster I kept taped above my desk for inspiration and glanced over to the orange-spined, dog-eared Penguin paperbacks stacked down the bookshelf.

How could I not email him back?

penne vodka
Photo: Casey Barber

Something started happening. I was convinced I was crazy. Only desperate, psychotic people spent their nights on Instant Messenger (*ding!*) with guys they had never met in person.

Even if said guys were hilariously dry-witted writers who understood why Ed was an underrated television masterpiece and unapologetically loved to sing “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” in the car.

I started to sleuth. I forced a fellow classmate who had graduated a year after Dan to bring in her college yearbook so I could see who I was talking to… you know, just to know.

He bought a cell phone for late phone calls that wouldn’t wake up the family; I found excuses to leave the bar early to make my nightly East Coast connection.

penne vodka
Photo: Casey Barber

And then a few too many beers did the work of Cupid’s arrows once and for all. Click: impulse purchase, round-trip between Chicago and Newark, set to arrive on his doorstep in July.

Even before I hugged Dan hello at Terminal A, before the first bite of penne dripping with tomatoes and cream, we’d both already admitted to ourselves that this undercurrent connecting us across five states and 1000 miles was something that could very well be It.

That our tastebuds were in sync was just another sign from the universe that we’d made the right decision.

A few notes on the recipe:

vodka sauce
Photo: Casey Barber

Why vodka? The alcohol interacts with the acid in the tomatoes and brightens their flavor in a way that non-alcoholic liquids like chicken broth or water just can’t.

Those two little tablespoons will keep the sauce from tasting thickly dull, giving it an extra pop and spark that regular marinara just doesn’t have.

And yes, you could replace the heavy cream in the recipe with light cream or even half and half, but the texture will be less smooth when using lower-fat substitutes.

If you’re serving it to the one you love, give them the real thing.

penne vodka

penne vodka

Penne Vodka

Yield: 4 servings
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 55 minutes

Penne vodka, the classic creamy tomato sauce spiked with just a little bit of vodka, is an Italian favorite—and a romantic tradition in our house.


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 medium to large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons vodka
  • 1 cup (1/2 pint) heavy cream
  • kosher salt
  • 1 16-ounce box penne
  • 1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese


  1. Heat the oil in a 3- to 4-quart Dutch oven over medium heat.
  2. Stir in the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook for just a minute, just until the garlic is fragrant and on the verge of browning.
  3. Stir in the tomatoes, then cover and bring to a simmer.
  4. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the tomatoes have thickened slightly.
  5. Stir in the vodka and cream and return to a simmer.
  6. Simmer for about 20 minutes more, stirring frequently, until the sauce has thickened and reduced in volume by about a quarter.
  7. Taste and add kosher salt as needed. Certain tomato brands can be naturally salty, so use your preference.
  8. Stir in most of the parsley, leaving a smidge for garnish.
  9. While the sauce is simmering, fill a 6- to 8-quart stockpot with water and bring to a boil.
  10. Add 1 tablespoon salt and stir in the penne. Cook according to package directions until al dente.
  11. Drain the penne and toss with the sauce.
  12. Garnish with black pepper, the remaining minced parsley, and with luxurious handfuls of cheese before serving.
Nutrition Information:
Yield: 4 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 381Total Fat: 13gSaturated Fat: 4gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 8gCholesterol: 17mgSodium: 643mgCarbohydrates: 51gFiber: 6gSugar: 10gProtein: 13g

The nutritional information above is computer-generated and only an estimate.

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