by amber guinness | photo by robyn Lea | from A House Party in Tuscany
This dish is my imitation of the famous house dish of creamy tomato penne cooked with vodka that is served at Alla Vecchia Bettola, a fabulous restaurant in Florence, Italy. I devised this recipe in a fit of desperate craving—at a time when I was not in Florence and unable to go to the restaurant.
What’s unusual and delicious about the Alla Vecchia Bettola dish is the use of “smooth” penne lisce, meaning that there aren’t any ridges for the sauce to cling to. For that reason, the final stage of cooking the penne happens in the sauce so that the pasta soaks up the tomato, chili, and vodka. For the pasta to be al dente, it’s vital that you only cook the penne in boiling water for two-thirds of the time recommended on the package before transferring it to the pan with the sauce for the last third of the cooking process. For instance, De Cecco penne will take eleven minutes to cook al dente; I would therefore cook the pasta in boiling water for seven to eight minutes and transfer the penne to the sauce for the last two to three minutes.
Preparation time: A couple of minutes to organize the ingredients
Cooking time: 1 hour
- 1/2 tablespoon chili flakes
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
- 4 tablespoons (60 ml) olive oil
- 1 bottle (24.5 ounces) (680-700 g) tomato passata (Italian puréed tomatoes)
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) vodka
- 7/8 cup (200 ml) light cream
- 1.1 lb (500 g) penne lisce (smooth) or penne rigate (ridged)
- 1/2 cup (60 g) Parmesan cheese, grated - plus extra, to serve
- A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, roughly chopped, to serve
In a large frying pan, gently heat the chili flakes and garlic in the oil for 3 to 5 minutes over medium heat. Allow the garlic to infuse, but do not let it brown. Add the bottle of passata to the chili and garlic, together with a generous pinch of salt. Half-fill the bottle with water, swish it around to pick up any remaining passata, and pour the tomatoey water into the pan. Cook for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally until the liquid has reduced by a third.
Put a large pan of well-salted water on to boil.
Pour the vodka into the reduced liquid, stir, and increase the heat to high. Allow to bubble for 5 minutes so that the alcohol evaporates, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the cream and switch to low heat while the pasta cooks.
Once the pasta cooking water is at a lively boil, add the penne. After the pasta has been cooking for 8 minutes, use a slotted spoon to transfer the pasta from the water to the tomato sauce. Add a ladleful of the starchy pasta cooking water if the sauce looks like it needs help to fully coat the pasta. Turn up the heat and allow to bubble and cook for a further 3 minutes, then stir in the Parmesan.
Remove the pasta from the heat and transfer it to a serving bowl. Top with a little chopped parsley and some freshly grated Parmesan. Serve immediately.
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Excerpted from A House Party in Tuscany by Amber Guinness © Thames & Hudson Australia 2022 Text © Amber Guinness 2022 Reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc, www.ThamesandHudsonUSA.com