This spicy vodka sauce is so smooth and ultra creamy with salty bits of crispy pancetta. It is a deeply flavored, rich, and decadent pasta sauce that goes so well with rigatoni pasta. Top with fresh basil and a good glass of Italian wine, like Sangiovese, and you have the perfect date night dinner.
Spicy vodka rigatoni became instagram famous a few years ago with a version from the New York city restaurant Carbone. Gigi Hadid also has a popular version.
I tried a few variations of this recipe before I settled on the final version. For this sauce, I was going for that ultra creamy restaurant style vodka sauce they serve in my favorite local Italian restaurant. I realized to get that extra thick and creamy texture, you have to do 2 things: blend the sauce well, and use mostly tomato paste rather than whole peeled tomatoes.
Now I love using whole peeled tomatoes. They for sure have their place in my kitchen, like in my marinara sauce. But for this recipe using a lot of tomato paste allows for that deep rich tomato flavor, while keeping the final product smooth and thick.
I also tried this recipe first without pancetta and it was good, but I promise you vodka sauce with pancetta is a lot better. The pancetta brings in a lovely saltiness and crispiness to break up the smooth sauce.
- Don’t worry about making perfect knife cuts or dicing the shallots too finely, since the final sauce will be pureed.
- If you aren’t familiar with cooking with red pepper flakes or don’t know how spicy you want the sauce, start with ¼ teaspoon. You can always add more later.
- Don’t overcook the pasta! It will continue to cook a little when mixed with the sauce.
- As always, save some pasta water for mixing the sauce and pasta together.
- Large heavy bottomed pot or dutch oven
- Cheese grater
- Immersion blender, large food processor, or regular blender
Spicy vodka alla rigatoni is made with a few simple ingredients. A lot of these are pantry staples you may already have on hand.
- Pancetta - Pancetta is salt cured pork belly. It is similar to bacon, however bacon is usually smoked. You can find pancetta that is diced into cubes, or sliced thinly. For this recipe, the diced version works better. If you can't find pancetta, you can substitute for bacon.
- Shallot - I use shallots in this recipe rather than onions for their more subtle flavor. You can also use an onion if that is what you have on hand.
- Fresh garlic - You know I love garlic. Always buy it fresh! Minced jarred garlic loses SO much of its intense flavor.
- Red pepper flakes - Red pepper flakes are what gives this pasta sauce a spicy kick. You can also use Calabrian chili paste instead.
- Tomato paste - Concentrated tomato paste is what helps to give this sauce a deep and rich flavor.
- Vodka - Vodka really brings this dish together, and helps bring out the flavors, especially in tomato based sauces. If you want to leave it out, substitute for an equal amount of water to deglaze the pan.
- Diced tomatoes - For this sauce I like the balance of deep tomato flavor from the tomato paste, and the contrasting brighter tomato flavor from the diced tomatoes. I used canned diced tomatoes, but you can also use 1 pound of fresh Roma tomatoes (if they are in season). Alternatively you can use crushed tomatoes as well.
- Balsamic vinegar - Adds an extra layer of flavor to this sauce.
- Heavy cream - Heavy cream is stirred into this sauce towards the end of cooking and gives this vodka sauce it’s signature creaminess.
- Parmesan cheese - Parmesan cheese adds to the complexity of this sauce with its salty and pungent flavor. Always buy parmesan cheese in a block and grate it yourself.
- Fresh basil - I like to top this sauce with fresh basil to break up the richness.
- Rigatoni - I served this vodka sauce with rigatoni, but you can use your favorite pasta shape. I suggest using pasta with grooves or ridges, like penne, to help soak up the sauce.
What is vodka sauce?
Vodka sauce is a smooth and creamy pasta sauce usually made from aromatics like garlic and onions, tomato paste, vodka, and heavy cream. It may also contain pancetta.
It is one of my favorite pasta sauces. I love that it is a simple pasta dish with complex flavors. I also love the velvety creamy texture.
Vodka sauce vs marinara - While vodka sauce and marinara have similar ingredients, vodka sauce also contains milk or heavy cream and parmesan cheese. Vodka sauce is also usually blended until smooth.
Vodka sauce vs bolognese - Vodka and bolognese are fairly different sauces, although they do contain similar ingredients. Bolognese sauce contains meat like Italian sausage, ground beef, or ground pork. It is usually slow simmered for a long period of time unlike vodka sauce. They do both contain milk or cream, but bolognese has a meat sauce texture while vodka sauce is blended smooth.
How do you spice up vodka sauce
Adding a little kick of spice is a great compliment to the rich creaminess of vodka sauce. You can use Calabrian chilis, cayenne pepper, or red pepper flakes. For this version I opted for red pepper flakes. Saute them with the shallots to bring out the flavor.
How to make spicy vodka sauce
Now that we’ve talked about the ingredients, let's get into how to make the best vodka sauce.
This spicy rigatoni alla vodka recipe makes enough sauce for 4 servings that are ¾ cup of sauce each. You can double this recipe to make more.
First, heat a large pot, dutch oven, or saucepan over medium heat. Once hot, add pancetta and cook until crispy, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
No olive oil is needed for this step since the fats in the pancetta will release once you start cooking.
Transfer the crispy pancetta to a paper towel lined plate to drain and set aside. You can chop up further if needed.
Reserve about 1 tablespoon of fat in the pot to use for caramelizing the shallots.
Add shallots and red pepper flakes to the reserved pancetta fat. Start with ¼ teaspoon of red pepper flakes first, especially if you’re worried about it being too spicy. You can always add more spice later, but can’t take it away once you add it!
Cook shallots and chili flakes while stirring frequently until shallots are translucent and caramelized, about 5 minutes. You want the edges to start to brown.
Add in garlic and cook while stirring for about 1 more minute, until garlic is fragrant.
Add in tomato paste and cook while stirring occasionally for 2 minutes, allowing the tomato paste to darken and caramelize. This also helps enhance the flavor of the tomato paste.
Deglaze the pan with vodka, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Stir to combine. Cook for 2-3 minutes allowing alcohol to burn off.
Add in diced tomatoes and balsamic vinegar and mix to combine. Reduce heat to low and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, then remove from heat.
If you're using an immersion blender to blend your sauce, you can do so right in the pot. It helps to tilt your pot to one side, making a bigger pool of sauce for the immersion blender to work in. Note: This amount of sauce may be more difficult for an immersion blender.
If you’re using a blender or food processor, allow the sauce to cool slightly before transferring. Always use extra caution when transferring and blending hot sauces!
Blend the sauce until extra smooth.
Now is a good time to boil your pasta to al dente, so its fresh and ready to go at the same time as your sauce is finishing.
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water up to a boil. I don’t measure my salt when adding it to pasta water. I just make sure it’s salty like the ocean. Boil the pasta a minute or 2 less than the package instructions for al dente. Drain pasta and make sure to reserve a cup of pasta water before draining to mix with the sauce later.
Return sauce back to the pot on low heat. Slowly stir in the heavy cream and mix well to combine.
Add pancetta back to the pot with parmesan cheese and stir to combine.
Simmer for about 10 minutes. Do a final taste test and add salt and black pepper to taste. This sauce will be naturally salty from the pancetta so don't over salt. You can also add in more red pepper flakes or Calabrian chilis if needed.
The final sauce should be thick, smooth, and orange colored with bits of crispy pancetta.
Add in the drained al dente pasta to the sauce with a splash of pasta water and combine.
Sauce is too thick: If your sauce is too thick you can add in more pasta water to loosen it up.
Sauce is too thin: If you’ve added too much pasta water and the sauce is too thin, you can simmer for a few more minutes to thicken it back up. You might want to remove the pasta if you do this, since the pasta will continue to cook and may get soggy or mushy.
Sauce isn’t smooth enough: To get the ultra smooth texture, you might have to blend the heck out of this sauce.
Sauce doesn't taste quite right: This is usually due to a salting error. Add enough salt to bring out the other flavors, but not so its overly salty.
How to serve
Serve pasta with fresh basil and more parmesan cheese. Some garlic bread would be a great addition so soak up all that extra creamy sauce.
How much vodka sauce for pasta - The serving size for this vodka sauce is about ¾ cup (6 ounces) of sauce per 4 ounces of pasta.
This sauce is great on its own as is, but you can also pair it with an extra protein if you want. Here are a few serving suggestions for spicy vodka rigatoni.
Vodka sauce meat pairings
- Vodka sauce with seared scallops - This pasta goes great with seared scallops. I served this when I met my boyfriend’s mother for the first time, and I think it was a success.
- Vodka sauce with meatballs - This sauce would also be a great pair with my Italian meatballs.
- Vodka sauce with sausage - Sear up sliced or crumbled Italian sausage and stir it into
- Vodka sauce with chicken - Slice up some grilled chicken breasts and serve on top of the pasta.
- Vodka sauce with shrimp - Seared shrimp would be delicious with this sauce. Try blackened shrimp.
- Vodka sauce and ground beef - Adding cooked ground beef crumbled to this sauce is a good way to add extra protein.
- Vodka sauce with mushrooms - I’m a big mushroom fan! Brown the mushrooms in a separate skillet and stir in a the end.
- Chicken parmesan or eggplant parmesan - Use vodka sauce instead of marinara sauce.
- Use this vodka sauce for lasagna for an extra creamy version.
- Serve it with stuffed pastas like tortellini, ravioli, or stuffed shells. Try it as a sauce for lobster ravioli!
- This sauce would also be fantastic with gnocchi, especially the kind with little ridges to soak up extra sauce.
- To lighten up this decadent sauce, serve it with zucchini noodles, aka zoodles.
- Use it in place of pizza sauce.
Storage & Reheating
How to store leftovers
Save any leftovers in an airtight container for 3-4 days in the refrigerator. Store leftover pasta and sauce separately if possible. It's also a good idea to save a little bit of pasta water as well since the sauce will continue to thicken as it cools.
How to freeze
You made this deliciously decadent sauce and now you’re wondering, can vodka sauce be frozen?
Freezing any sauce with milk is generally not recommended, but I have had success with freezing this sauce.
You can also make the sauce up until the point of adding cream and freeze. Then when you are ready to eat it, you can stir in the cream then.
My favorite way to freeze pasta sauces is in a quart size freezer bag. First label and date your bag. Add one or two servings to the bag, and squeeze out any remaining air. Lay the bag flat in the freezer (like on a pizza box works well for this).
Once frozen, you can stand up the bag and store in a filing cabinet style in your freezer drawer or a basket. This method really helps to keep your freezer organized and makes it so much easier to find what you are looking for!
How to reheat
How to reheat vodka sauce from the refrigerator: The best way to reheat pasta sauce, especially those containing a lot of butter/fats and cream, is to do so on the stove. In a skillet or saucepan, heat the sauce up slowly over medium-low heat until heated throughout. This method makes it less likely that the sauce will break.
How to reheat vodka sauce from the freezer: Remove the sauce the night before and store in the refrigerator until defrosted. If you can’t wait overnight, add the freezer bag to a container of running cool water until it is liquid enough to reheat on the stove. From here follow the method above for reheating on the stove. If you froze the sauce prior to adding cream, make sure to stir in the cream at the end of reheating.
Variations & Substitutions
- Skip the spice - You don't have to use chili flakes in this recipe if you prefer a non-spicy version.
- If you would like to use fresh tomatoes, substitute the can of diced tomatoes for 1 pound of fresh Roma tomatoes, diced.
- Vodka sauce without heavy cream - You can substitute heavy cream for milk or half and half. Both of these options will make a slightly thinner sauce.
- Vodka sauce without tomato paste - I experimented with this recipe in a few different ways, one with only tomatoes, one with only tomato paste, and one with a combination. My favorite version with the combination of both tomato paste and diced tomatoes. You can make vodka without tomato paste but it won’t come out as smooth as this version does. You can try eliminating the tomato paste and using double the volume of tomatoes.
- Vodka sauce without onions - This recipe for vodka sauce calls for shallots instead of onions. You can omit both if you want to, but it will lose some flavor.
- Vodka sauce without dairy - If you would like to make vodka sauce without dairy, try subbing the heavy cream for a nondairy milk, like cashew milk, and skipping the parmesan cheese. I have not tried making it this way.
- Vodka sauce without vodka recipe - If you prefer not to use vodka, substitute it for an equal amount of water or broth to deglaze the pan.
- Vodka sauce without tomatoes - You can skip the tomatoes all together in this recipe and just use tomato paste.
No, vodka sauce is not Alfredo sauce and marinara sauce mixed together. While all three sauces have similarities, the creaminess in vodka sauce comes from heavy cream, not Alfredo sauce.
While vodka sauce does indeed contain alcohol, no, vodka sauce will not make you intoxicated. When prepared properly, the alcohol from the vodka is allowed to burn off. For this reason, you can not taste the vodka in vodka sauce, nor will it get you drunk.
You can make this sauce vodka a day ahead of time, then reheat slowly in a large skillet.
Yes, you can make vodka sauce without vodka. Most of the alcohol will burn off when making vodka sauce, but if you prefer not to use alcohol, substitute vodka for an equal amount of water or broth to deglaze the pan.
While vodka sauce and marinara have similar ingredients, vodka sauce also contains milk or heavy cream and parmesan cheese. Vodka sauce is also usually blended until smooth.
Spicy Rigatoni alla Vodka (Spicy Vodka Sauce)
- food processor, blender, or immersion blender
- large heavy pot or dutch oven
- cheese grater
- 4 ounces Pancetta diced into ½ Inch pieces
- 2 Shallots diced
- ¼-1 teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes (optional for spiciness)
- 4 Cloves of Fresh Garlic minced
- 6 ounces Tomato Paste
- ⅓ cup Vodka
- 14.5 ounces Diced Tomatoes (1 regular sized can)
- 1 tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
- 1 cup Heavy Cream
- 2-4 ounces Parmesan cheese freshly grated
- salt and pepper to taste
- Fresh Basil chiffonade (thinly sliced)
- 1 pound Rigatoni Pasta or pasta of your choice
- CRISP: Heat a large pot, dutch oven, or sauce pan over medium heat. When hot, add pancetta and cook about 5 minutes or until crispy, stirring occasionally. Transfer crispy pancetta to a paper towel lined plate to drain. Chop further if needed. Reserve about 1 tablespoon of fat in the pot.
- CARAMELIZE: Add shallots and red pepper flakes to pancetta fat and cook while stirring frequently until shallots are translucent and caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add in garlic and cook while stirring for about 1 more minute, until garlic is fragrant. Add in tomato paste and cook while stirring occasionally for 2 minutes, allowing the tomato paste to darken and caramelize.
- DEGLAZE: Deglaze the pan with vodka, and stir to combine. Cook for 2-3 minutes allowing alcohol to burn off.
- SIMMER: Add in diced tomatoes and balsamic vinegar and mix to combine. Reduce heat to low and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, then remove from heat.
- BLEND: *Blend sauce in the pot if using an immersion blender, or allow to cool slightly and transfer the sauce to the blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.*
- PASTA: Now is a good time to boil your pasta to al dente.
- FINISH: Return sauce back to the pot on low heat. Slowly stir in the heavy cream and mix to combine. Add pancetta and parmesan cheese and stir to combine. Simmer for about 10 minutes and remove from heat. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add cooked pasta to the sauce with a splash of pasta water and combine. Serve pasta with fresh basil and more parmesan cheese.
Hey good lookin', what ya got cookin'? I'm Lauren and I love to teach you how to make the good stuff, from scratch! I use fresh quality ingredients to create impressive but approachable restaurant worthy recipes.