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healthy pasta vodka sauce

Healthier Pasta Alla Vodka Sauce

healthy pasta vodka sauce

A Liquor Theme {Recipe Redux} Healthier Pasta alla Vodka Sauce Recipe

Pasta with vodka sauce is one of the most popular Italian American dishes. The first time I tried it was about twenty years ago at a restaurant in New Jersey and I have enjoyed various versions since. Now I make it at home for my kids, especially for my son, who puts this healthier pasta alla vodka at the top of his favorite meals and asked for pasta vodka sauce for his 13th birthday dinner choice. I love cooking Italian food, it is a cuisine you cook from your heart. Maybe it comes from growing up in New Jersey, and having a best friend and her mamma who were Italian. And if you visit the Jersey Shore or anywhere in ‘Joisey you are not far from an Italian restaurant; (or an Italian!).  Our state has the fourth highest number of households identifying as Italian ancestry. All this blabbering to say that I wanted to present an Italian recipe for this month’s Recipe Redux challenge. I have Italy on my mind here in Jersey this summer.

If you have been following the blog (you can subscribe here if you would like), you know that each month I participate in a recipe club, called Recipe Redux. Each month the theme changes, and recipes are written and adapted by dietitians to keep the taste of the dish but make them healthier. This month’s Recipe Redux theme is cooking with liquor. And hanging here back at the Jersey Shore this summer, surrounded by Italians and Italian food, restaurants and cuisine, the choice was easy. Ah sì, a pasta alla vodka sauce lighter and healthier with that soft mouth feel and delicious taste.

A typical pasta vodka sauce is filled with butter, heavy cream and cheese. This version is lighter and healthier.

It wasn’t hard to make the vodka sauce healthier. What was needed was to cut some of the fats in the dish. A typical sauce has one stick of butter, one pint of heavy cream and a lot of Parmesan cheese. These fats make the dish molto delizioso, but also molto rich, heavy and high in saturated (less healthy) fats. I can last for about 10 bites of a real pasta vodka dish and then I am basta full to finish. The hardest part about cutting the fats in a recipe is to keep the good aspects of the dish. Fats are very important to taste, (in fact critical to the taste of this dish), visual perception and mouth feel, and this vodka pasta sauce is supposed to be rich. It is like a sit in front of the fireplace in winter and eat comfort food dish. Make this sauce too light and you ruin it. Keeping some of the cream and butter is essential , and lightening it just enough will make it taste good and produce a healthier pasta vodka sauce. And make it a summer comfort dish.

Who invented this delicious and easy pasta vodka sauce?

I think part of the fun about food and recipes is learning about where signature dishes were invented. So, where did pasta vodka sauce originate from? Italy? America? The exact origins of vodka sauce are debatable, but three theories are:

  • Italy: Dante Restaurant in Bologna, Italy. According to Pasquale Bruno, Jr., author of The Ultimate Pasta Cookbook, penne alla vodka was invented at Dante, a restaurant in Bologna. This restaurant is closed but it was popular in Bologna during the 1980’s.
  • America: By Chef James Doty.
  • Italy-America: Luigi Franzese -(Called Penne alla Russa) “Paula Franzese has asserted that her father Luigi Franzese, born in Naples, Italy in 1931, devised the first version of penne alla vodka, which he called penne alla Russa because of the addition of the vodka to his tomato and cream sauce base. He allegedly first prepared the dish table side for patrons at the New York City restaurant Orsini in 1973. One of these patrons was Joe Franklin, a celebrated talk show host at the time who fell in love with the dish. Thereafter, he invited Mr. Franzese onto his talk show several times where he would prepare the dish to the delight of guests that included Ernest Borgnine and Cheryl Tiegs, as well as others. Armando Orsini, the owner of the famed restaurant with famous customers, has also verifed the claim.”

How vodka adds to the flavor of pasta vodka sauce

I was curious to why and how vodka is an essential part of this sauce. Why does vodka make this a sauce so good? According to Serious Eats,

“The main concept behind the sauce is the addition of vodka brings out flavors in the tomatoes that are alcohol soluble, and with vodka being a rather neutral liquor, it cooks off somewhat flavorless and leaves behind a changed tomato sauce. This spicy, acidic sauce is then tempered with heavy cream to create a rich, vibrant flavor in the end.

Along with the creaminess of this pasta sauce, vodka is a key ingredient for the taste and flavors.

Final thoughts on this healthier pasta alla vodka sauce

Some last thoughts on making this healthier vodka sauce a success at your casa:

  •  Use a tubular pasta such as penne or rigatoni. I used cavatappi, which is a longer swirled pasta, but this sauce is better with a tube pasta because the sauce goes inside the pasta when you eat it: more fun!
  • Use a good quality vodka and don’t go over the recommended dose of 3/4 cup. In a pasta alla vodka recipe, the addition of too much vodka can make the sauce taste harsh and bitter. I added the vodka in this recipe before the tomatoes because I wanted the alcohol to burn off to serve the dish to my kids. You can add the vodka to the tomatoes a few minutes before the sauce is done. This will enhance the taste of the vodka, but not all the alcohol will burn off.
  •  Use heavy cream. This healthier pasta sauce uses a smaller addition of heavy cream instead of a (lower fat) half and half. Heavy cream is an essential ingredient in this recipe for appearance, mouth feel and taste. It also helps the sauce stick to the pasta, which is nice for the person eating it.

Now to the recipe. Buon Appetito!

Ingredients (serves 6 adults)

  • 1 Tablespoon of unsalted butter
  • 2 Tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • Half of a medium onion, chopped
  • 4 Garlic cloves diced
  • A handful of fresh basil leaves (about 12) chopped and a few more for garnish
  • 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 1/4 lbs. Short or tubular pasta, such as cavatappi, penne or rigatoni
  • 1/2 Teaspoon of brown sugar
  • 1/3 Cup of heavy cream
  • 1/2 Cup of Parmesan cheese and more to (optionally) add to each served bowl
  • 1/8 Teaspoons cayenne or red chili pepper
  • 3/4 Cup of good quality vodka
  • Freshly ground pepper and salt to taste


1. In a large pot, heat up a large quantity of water to cook the pasta.

2. In a separate sauce pan, melt the butter and olive oil under medium heat.

Healthy Pasta Vodka Tomato Sauce Alla Buona

3. When butter has melted, add the onion and garlic, and sautée until the onion is transparent, approximately 5 minutes.

4. Then add the basil and vodka and continue to cook under low heat until the mixture has reduced by a third.

Healthy Pasta Vodka Tomato Sauce Alla Buona 5. Check the water for the pasta. Is it boiling? Add two teaspoons of salt and add the pasta to cook.

Healthy Pasta Vodka Tomato Sauce Alla Buona

6. Open the can of crushed tomatoes. I like Cento brand because the tomatoes have a good taste.

Healthy Pasta Vodka Tomato Sauce Alla Buona 7. Add the tomatoes, cayenne pepper and brown sugar to the sauce and simmer over very low heat for five minutes, while the pasta is cooking. Healthy Pasta Vodka Tomato Sauce Alla Buona 8. Add the heavy cream and stir into the sauce.

9. Drain the pasta and add it into the sauce. Mix in the Parmesan cheese. Mix pasta and sauce throughly and serve immediately with optional topped cheese and a few leaves of basil.   healthy pasta vodka sauce

A healthier Pasta Vodka Sauce recipe to celebrate the hot summer months. Have you reached the end and want to see more like this? Why not subscribe to the BrightonYourHealth monthly newsletter and article updates.  Click on the link below. Your email will always remain private.

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Inspired on more ways to add liquor in dishes? Here are my Recipe Redux dietitian recipes. As always, wishing you Bon Appetit!

Warmly, Mary

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5 Responses to Healthier Pasta Alla Vodka Sauce

  1. Deanna Segrave-Daly (@tspbasil) August 18, 2014 at 20:04 #

    Well, this recipes spoke to this part-Italian Jersey Shore loving girl for sure! So fun to read about the history behind this dish – fantastic healthy tips, too. Now much to my chagrin, I realized we were out of vodka the other day when I went to make Moscow Mules. So, it’s really time to replace it now so I can make this too:)

  2. Claudia August 2, 2014 at 02:24 #

    So delectable! That looks impressive!

    • mbrighton August 2, 2014 at 17:06 #

      Thank you Claudia! Let me know how it turns out. Have a nice day!

  3. LydiaF July 23, 2014 at 16:09 #

    I remember watching Rachel Ray make this. She called it “You Won’t Be Single For Long” Sauce. It took me years before I actually tried to make it and I couldn’t get over how delicious it was! Thanks to your explanation of the interaction between the tomatoes and vodka, I understand why it’s become a family favorite.

  4. Lindsay @ The Lean Green Bean July 23, 2014 at 14:07 #

    would you believe i’ve never tried this dish? I think the name always freaks me out since i don’t like vodka but this sounds delish!

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