For a couple of years in my twenties, I was lucky enough to travel to New York for work. I remember listening to my hype song — Rihanna’s Umbrella — bathed in that neon purple light— as my Virgin America plane descended over Queens. I’d hop in a real yellow taxi and spend my first night hardly sleeping — partly from the anticipation and partly from the hum of the hotel noise, street traffic, and seemingly endless parade of people galavanting thirty floors below.
The things I looked forward to the most on those trips were long walks through the city, seeing East Coast friends, and, undoubtably, the Italian food.
I took every opportunity to score a table at whatever the latest hot spot was for homemade pasta because, no matter how you slice it, there is no better Italian food in America than in New York City.
Whether or not it was authentic didn’t matter as much as the fact that there was always someone speaking Italian in the back of the house. That was pretty much good enough for me. As long as the Chianti kept flowing and the baskets of focaccia kept coming.
In the months that I spent living in Italy, I had never once come across pasta with vodka sauce. But growing up in New Jersey, every Italian mom had a recipe in her back pocket. The concept is rooted in exactly what makes Italian food magical: a highly curated collection of ingredients that play off each other magically and hug and love every crevice of your body.
In this case, I was flipping through my recent issue of Bon Appetit and immediately zeroed in on the Rigatoni with Easy Vodka Sauce. The recipe has you cook onions and garlic together until slightly browned, then add an entire tube of double-concentrated tomato paste, deglaze the pan with a generous helping of vodka.
The trick of the trade is mixing 1/2 cup of hot pasta water with the cream before stirring it into the sauce (which prevents the cream from breaking up when it makes contact with the hot pot). I tweaked this recipe slightly to suit my tastes. And I always, always encourage you to shave extra Parmesan cheese. Am I the only person who requests that the bowl of Parmesan be left at the table??
The bottom line is that this bowl of pasta feels like love and nostalgia. And I’m really feeling both of those things right now.
Easy Vodka Sauce Pasta
Adapted from Bon Appetit
2 tablespoons of olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 small onions, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 4.5 ounce tube of double-concentrated tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
2 ounces of vodka (the good stuff!)
3/4 cup of heavy whipping cream
1 pound of rigatoni
4 ounces of Parmesan cheese, finely grated (using a microplane) plus more for sprinkling over the pasta
Fresh basil leaves, for garnish
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion soften and begins to brown lightly (not burn!). Stir in the tomato paste. Continue cooking for about five minutes, stirring frequently, until the tomato paste begins to turn a deeper red. Pour in the vodka to deglaze the pan and scrape off any brown bits.
3. Grab a heatproof glass measuring cup and scoop out about 1/2 cup of water from the other pot. Add the whipping cream to the pasta water. Pour the mixture into the pot and stir until it forms a sauce. Turn off the heat.
4. Cook the pasta until al dente. Scoop out about 1 cup of pasta water and set aside.
5. Drain the past and add it directly to the sauce in the Dutch oven. Pour in 1/2 cup of pasta water and add in 1/2 the Parmesan cheese. Salt lightly and stir until the sauce thickens. Add in more pasta water if the sauce is too thick.
6. Divide the pasta among bowls, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, and garnish with fresh basil. Give each bowl a drizzle of olive oil before serving. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, if needed.