This is a spicy version of my daughter Philomena’s all-time favorite classic pasta dish: Rigatoni alla Vodka! I’m sad to report I’ve never eaten the most famous version of this dish at Carbone in NYC, so I can’t say for sure how this one compares. All I know is this is quite possibly the most comforting, savory, faintly sweet and perfectly spicy pasta dish you will ever sink your teeth into. But don’t take my word for it. Treat yourself to a plate tonight and report back!! PS just leave out the chilis if you and yours don’t like it spicy – Philo style!
1 lb rigatoni, penne or pachheri
4 tbsp butter
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp kosher salt
3-4 garlic cloves, grated
1 cup heavy cream at room temperature
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp smoked chili flakes
1 tsp dried oregano
¼ cup tomato paste
2 tbsp crushed Calabrian chili peppers
1 tsp granulated sugar
28 oz. crushed tomatoes
1/3 cup vodka
4 oz. parmesan cheese, finely grated
•Fill a large stock pot halfway with water and season with a good pinch of salt. You want only enough water to cover the pasta by 2 inches. Using as little water as possible will help concentrate the starch content and seasoning in the pasta water which you will eventually use to help build your sauce. Set over high heat to bring to boil while you do your other prep, adding more water as needed if level gets too low.
•Melt butter in a large, shallow pan over medium heat. Once butter starts to froth, add the onion. Turn heat to medium-low and let onion sweat for 10-12 minutes, stirring regularly to avoid the onions developing any color – we want them pale and softened, not caramelized. Add a tablespoon or 2 of water if the onions start to develop color. Once softened, add salt and cook onions another 2 minutes before adding in the garlic and stirring to incorporate. Sweat the garlic 1 minute, then slowly pour in the heavy cream so as not to halt the cooking process. Stir together to warm through, but don’t allow to boil.
•Using an immersion blender, purée the onion mix until smooth. Alternatively, add onion mix to a vented blender (which will allow steam to escape so it doesn’t build up pressure) and purée until smooth, working in batches as needed. If you have the patience to let the onion mix cool completely, you can puree in a regular blender. Set aside.
•Reusing the same shallow pan you cooked the onions in, add olive oil and fry the chile flake and oregano over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add in the tomato paste and stir to caramelize and rust, stirring often, about 2 minutes. Add in Calabrian crushed chili peppers and sugar and stir to incorporate. Add crushed tomatoes to the pan and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer, then turn off the heat (for safety) and add the vodka. Bring the sauce up to a boil over high heat to marry all elements of the sauce and evaporate the alcohol. Once the sauce is boiling, drop the heat and bring back to a simmer, then slowly stir in the onion puree until incorporated. At this point, sauce can be cooled and then saved in an airtight container up to 3 days in the refrigerator or up to 2 months in the freezer.
•Meanwhile, add 1 lb. rigatoni to the pot of boiling salted water. Cook 2 minutes less than the package instructions, stirring occasionally. Once cooking is complete, use a heatproof measuring cup or mug to scoop up 1 cup of pasta cooking liquid before draining the pasta.
•Add the cooked rigatoni to the sauce and add a little less than half of the reserved pasta water. Toss and stir gently until all noodles are covered and sauce is thickened again.
•To serve, top with freshly grated parmesan cheese and enjoy!