When asked where I grew up, I almost always answer, “New York”. The reality is that I grew up 15 minutes (95 minutes with traffic) out of the city in Bergen County, New Jersey. For all the reasons, NJ just has a bad rap and maybe I’m a little self conscious about it. Could be the many seasons of Jersey Shore, or my crazy curly hair that made me look like a Jersey “JAP“, or just the simple fact that Jersey has some of the ugliest areas in the whole country. Maybe times have changed, but it’s not “cool” to be from New Jersey in my brain. The only “cool” thing out of NJ is penne alla vodka pizza. Ehhh, not THAT cool.
What Jersey actually has is a hell of a lot of malls and old school, family owned, Red Sauce joints.
The place you can get that not too thick, not soggy, fold-it-in-half, let the oil drip out, saucy, slice. It’s also the place you can get a super chunky, doughy, square shaped, “Sicilian” slice. I have yet to find a Sicilian slice outside the tri-state area. Growing up, we went to Rudy’s, Cresskill Pizza, TPR, and Ray’s and I would order a slice with a classic “Italian Salad” (extra dressing please), or I’d get Penne alla Vodka. In my humble, non-food writer opinion, Vodka sauce is the king at Red Sauce joints. If you made a good, classic American-Italian vodka sauce, you were gold in my books.
It’s thick, tomato-y, creamy, and cheesy. I don’t want anything else from a pasta sauce. I’m not including cacio e pepe/carbonara in this “sauce” category so don’t @ me please. I was inspired to make my ultimate vodka sauce. With only 7 simple ingredients, 8 if you include the pasta itself, and 20 minutes, you can have yourself the most satisfying pasta. I love adding salami to all sauces, that’s why you see those rosy ribbons of fatty goodness in the recipe. You could totally leave it out though. I’d eat this every day for the rest of my life. I love it, my daughter loves it, my mother loves it, my husband loves it though he grumbles when I make pasta for dinner since he’s trying to be more healthy.
Here are some thoughts and tips I’ve jotted down as I recipe tested this alla vodka situation:
- Keep lots of pasta cooking water because the sauce can get super thick. Don’t stress, just keep adding pasta water.
- Grating the onion and garlic instead of chopping allows them to really melt into the sauce and I dig that.
- I had a horrible mess of red spots everywhere as a result of using a large skillet. Better thing is to use a dutch oven to make the sauce and then toss the pasta right in there.
- Cavatappi is fun but you can use any ridged pastas such as penne (duh) or rigatoni.
- I’m so into making pasta lately. Have you tired my Spaghetti with Coconut Milk & Curry yet? It’s a hit. I’ve gotten so much good feedback on that one.
- I’ve made this a vegetarian recipe by leaving out the salami/pepperoni and it’s delicious.
- DO NOT USE PRE-GRATED PARMESAN CHEESE. PLEASE MAKE YOUR OWN. You can totally do it ahead of time and save yourself the 2-3 minutes it takes to make it on a weeknight. Yes, that’s sarcasm. You can use the small, spiky holes of your box grater or just blitz large chunks of parm in your food processor.
By the way, if you don’t know what Red Sauce means, check these awesome Bon Appétit Red Sauce America articles.
CAVATAPPI E SALAMI ALLA VODKA
MAKES 4 SERVINGS
1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, grated on large holes of a box grater
3 cloves garlic, grated on a microplane
8 slices Hard Salami, sliced into 1/4” strips
8 slices pepperoni, sliced into 1/4” strips
6 oz (about 3/4 cup) tomato paste
3 tbsp vodka
1 1/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 – 1 1/2 cup pasta cooking water
2/3 cup finely grated parmesan, plus more for serving
1 lb box Cavatappi, Rigatoni, or Penne
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil.
Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and most of the moister has evaporated, about 4 minutes.
As you’re making the sauce, throw the pasta into the boiling water. You’re going to need the liquid to finish this sauce. Cook the pasta al-dente, about 2 minutes shy of the package directions. It will finish cooking in the sauce. Save at least 1 1/2 cups of the pasta cooking water and drain.
Back to the sauce: Add the sliced salami and pepperoni. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the oils are fragrant and they meats have “wilted”, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook until it has begun to caramelize, 2-3 minutes.
Deglaze with the vodka, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot as it bubbles away and reduces leaving almost no liquid, about 2 minutes. Stir in the heavy cream, about 3/4 cup of the pasta cooking water, the grated parmesan, and a small pinch or two of salt. Stir and continue cooking until it’s thick. Add the pasta and stir. If the sauce is too thick, add a bit more pasta water.
Divide among serving dishes and top with more grated parmesan. Alla Vodka! *kisses fingers like a chef*