Zia Francesca’s Penne alla Vodka

My Zia (Aunt) Francesca adores Italy more than anyone I know.

No, really–I am being completely serious. She was born in Italy, but it’s more than a love for one’s country as her passion exceeds that 100 times over. Heaven help you if you say anything slightly derogatory about anything or anyone, even remotely Italian, as she will promptly ensure that you are enlightened as to why you are wrong. An Alitalia flight attendent once gave her a bottle of champagne mid-flight solely because she was so pro-Italia!

She lives in Toronto—the Italian part, of course—where they often speak “Italese”, which is Italian and Inglese (English) mixed together. It is not uncommon to hear phrases like, “I’m going to pick up la cake,” or “mettele raynd eeh garbeege” (pronounced “gahr-BEEGE”) which is dialect and translates to “put it in the garbage.”

Once, when I was visiting my aunt, she asked me if I wanted an espresso, as everyone was having coffee. I told her, “Zia, remember, I don’t like coffee.” Well, that was the wrong answer! She then exclaimed, “CREEES-teee-NAH! How can you be eetalian if you don’t dreenk coffee? Am gonna make one for you, and you’re gonna like it!” (Cue the aunt from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, “What do you mean he don’t eat no meat? That’s okay, I make lamb.”)

So Zia Franca made me an espresso, and I liked it. Truly, I did actually enjoy it because she put about five teaspoons of whipped sugar into it (it reminded me of coffee ice-cream, which I love because it’s so sweet)!

At my wedding, in a dress she probably made in 20 minutes!

Besides going to bat for Italy and all things Italian, Zia Francesca is a seamstress who can whip out a set of fancy curtains or a gorgeous wedding dress from her sewing machine before you’ve even decided on the fabric. Her house is always perfectly clean (no maid, she does it all), and oh, did I mention she’s also does hair? So it probably won’t surprise you, when I tell you that she’s also a frickin’ sensational cook. Zia Francesca is the chef’s equivalent to a gardener with ten green thumbs–yes, she’s that good! Anything she makes is “over-the-top delicious” and it’s really, really difficult not to overeat at her house.

So years ago, when Zia Francesca told me to make Penne alla Vodka, I should have listened the very first time. She kept telling me how fabulous it was and would tell me how she made it, but I would always forget to try it. One evening, I finally made her recipe, but it was probably after the sixth time she had described it to me, and I’m telling you, I could have kicked myself. Not only was it so incredibly tasty, but the vodka sauce was ready before the pasta was even finished cooking! HELLO?  What more could anyone ask for?

I now make Zia Francesca’s Penne alla Vodka for a quick and easy weeknight meal, or when I when I have guests for dinner and want rave reviews, and want to make something I know everyone will love. It’s also easy to turn this into a vegetarian meal by omitting the pancetta, or a celiac-friendly meal by using gluten-free pasta.

What I’m trying to tell you is that you need to make this pasta! Even if you’re not a multi-talented, super-seamstress, Top Chef, hairstyling Italian zealot, who has the cleanest house in the neighborhood, you can still make this delicious pasta and impress your family and friends. Hey, you never know, the other skills may follow (insert maniacal laughter here).

*This blog post won 2nd Place at the 2013 Orange County Fair! Zia is very happy! (7/13)

1. Use top quality ingredients for the best results in the flavor of the final dish.

2. Use enough salt! If you have used all the correct ingredients, but it doesn’t taste great, I’d be 99% sure you haven’t added enough salt; use enough, without over-salting.

Zia Francesca’s Penne Alla Vodka


  • 6 tbsp good quality extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 or 5 cloves of garlic, smashed with the flat part of a knife blade
  • 1 or 2 oz pancetta, cut into small pieces (omit for vegetarian)
  • small bunch of Italian parsley, chopped
  • 24 to 28 oz good quality Italian tomato puree
  • Kosher or sea salt, to taste
  • 2 oz good quality vodka
  • 2 oz heavy cream, organic preferably
  • 5 or 6 leaves of fresh basil
  • 1 lb good quality pasta, like De Cecco

In a large pot, cook the penne according to the instructions on the box. It is important to use enough water, and to add the pasta only when the water is boiling; stir often to avoid the pasta sticking
(do not add oil to the water-it is uneccessary.)

 While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil over medium to med-high heat in a very large, deep saute pan, then add the pancetta and cook for a minute or two, then add the garlic.

When the garlic just starts to brown, add the chopped parsley, and turn the burner up to high. After a minute or so (when the pan is very hot), add the tomato puree and have the lid ready in case it bubbles out of the pan, then stir quickly with a wooden spoon.

Do not cook the sauce with the lid on, lower the heat, but cook the sauce so it is briskly simmering (this is a quick sauce, not one which simmers low and long.)

Add salt and continue to stir often, making sure it doesn’t dry up.

After approximately 7 or 8 minutes, when the sauce has started to thicken, check for salt, then add the vodka and stir well.

Turn off the heat and add the cream, and stir once again.

I just love my new mini OXO measuring cups!

Last, but not least, stir in the chopped basil.

When the pasta is ready (make sure it is al dente), drain it in a colander and put it back into the same pot.
Add some sauce and stir to make sure it is evenly distributed. If this is a weeknight meal, I just serve it from the pot, and add a little sauce to each plate. If you are serving to guests, prepare a large pasta bowl, by warming it with very hot water, then add the pasta with sauce, and top with more sauce and a sprig of basil.


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34 Responses

  1. wrote on

    My goodness, this looks terrific!

    “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”
    ― Federico Fellini

    This Italian guy had it right … just like your Zia!

    • wrote on

      Perfect quote, Susan! Zia will love to hear this!! :)

    • wrote on

      You are absolutely, 100% correct, Angie! :)

  2. wrote on

    Over the last 2 months I have been living a low carb high fat diet (LCHF), and I have not craved pasta once….until now! This look FANTASTIC!! I am definitly ‘pinning’ this recipe for the future :)

    • wrote on

      Oh, dear! Sorry about that! I hope you are off your diet soon, because this is truly one of the best sauces you’ll ever have! ;) CC

  3. wrote on

    I love your Aunt, she reminds me of so many of my Italian relatives, I’m dying “you don’t eat meat, I’ll make you lamb” LOL! She is a treasure and the penne looks so delicious! Great post!

    • wrote on

      Thank you, Suzanne! My family is full of characters, what can I say? :)

  4. wrote on


    It was so nice to meet you at Camp Blogaway. This recipe looks incredible – I’ve been looking for a good Vodka Sauce and surely your Zia can be trusted ;)


    • wrote on

      Same here, Angela-lovely to meet you in person! Yes, you won’t make any other vodka sauce recipe once you make this one…I’m craving it again already! Thanks for stopping by ;)

  5. wrote on

    Looks yummy! One of the things I am still planning to make one day :)

    • wrote on

      Don’t do what I did…make it sooner than later, Medeja! ;)

  6. wrote on

    Thanks for sharing this recipe with us. Made this for the family and it was a HIT. Definitely adding this to the family menu.

    • wrote on

      That’s fabulous! Just what I (and Zia F) love to hear! Thanks for letting us know! ;) CC

  7. wrote on

    That’s a great story and Zia Francesca is lovely. Nice recipe CREEES-teee-NAH :)

    • wrote on

      That’s SO funny!!! Wait until I tell her what you wrote, she’s gonna die laughing! ;)

  8. wrote on

    […] Other aunts’ recipes~ Aunt Elvira’s Strawberry and Meringue Dessert Aunt Virginia’s Homemade “Mounds” or “Bounty” Chocolates Zia Francesca’s Penne alla Vodka […]

  9. wrote on

    […] to make, healthy dishes that are packed with flavor~ Italian Style Green Beans Pasta and Beans Zia Francesca’s Penne alla Vodka Older PostChristina’s Quick and Easy Tortilla SoupNewer PostTomato, Ricotta and Basil […]

  10. wrote on

    Allora, adesso devo provare la ricetta per penne alla vodka di sua zia Francesca! Grazie! (I might have gotten some of that wrong. I’m still learning Italian :-))

    • wrote on

      OMG, I had no idea! Ma tu scrivi per bene! Io non parla o scrivi per bene…sempre faccio i sbagli! :( I’m sure there’s one in that, too! How are you learning?

  11. Ruth

    wrote on

    Made Zia Francesca’s Penne alla Vodka last week for friends and they LOVED it. I showed them the recipe and pictures and the comment was “It looked just like the pictures!” In fact one got the recipe and cooked it for her family at the weekend.

    • wrote on

      Love to hear it!! Thanks, Ruth!

  12. wrote on

    […] Dessert, Christina is also half Italian, so she also shares recipes from her mother and family like Zia Francesca’s Penne alla Vodka and her blog posts come with great family stories and […]

  13. wrote on

    […] Dessert, Christina is also half Italian, so she also shares recipes from her mother and family like Zia Francesca’s Penne alla Vodka and her blog posts come with great family stories and […]

  14. Jeanne Spampata

    wrote on

    I made this sauce last night to serve over lobster ravioli. We had been out sailing for 3 hours and I had to do something quick and easy. It was fantastic! A perfect (and may I say romantic) ending to a beautiful summer day! Thank you for sharing the recipe!


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