Baked Penne Alla Vodka

Story by Natalie
Baked Penne Alla Vodka with kale and mozzarella in a pan with a serving spoon
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Fancy without being fussy, this cheesy baked penne alla vodka is what your date night in dreams are made of.

Penne Alla Vodka, I'm in Love

My husband and I have never been ones to go all out on Valentine’s Day. However, staying in with all the carbs? Yes please! I can get behind any holiday (even Valentine’s Day) if it provides me with an excuse to make this baked penne alla vodka recipe.

With a little effort and whole lot of cheese, this classic penne alla vodka sauce with a TMP twist is our definition of the perfect date night in. It’s:

  • “fancy” without the fuss
  • perfectly cheesy
  • completely delicious (duh!)

After all, nothing says ‘I love you’ like the ultimate pasta dish.

Baked Penne Alla Vodka with kale and fresh mozzarella

Is Penne Alla Vodka Really Italian?

While you won’t find penne alla vodka served widely in Italy, this dish has become very popular in American/Italian cuisine. It’s believed that the dish was created in the late 1960s by vodka distillers, in an effort to get more Italians drinking (and cooking with) vodka. Whether or not those distillers were successful is anyone’s guess, but if this dish is what resulted, they get my vote!

Ingredients laid out for Penne Alla Vodka with kale and fresh mozzarella tomatoes sausage

Why Do They Call it Vodka Sauce?

Vodka sauce is the combination of a traditional tomato sauce with the addition of cream , plenty of parmigiano-reggiano, and vodka, of course. Using alcohol in combination with the tomatoes brings out a sweetness that is otherwise hidden and acts as an emulsifying agent, preventing the cream from separating from the tomatoes and spices. So, while you might be tempted to skip the booze, don’t do it.

Does Vodka Sauce Have Alcohol in it?

While there is some debate about what happens when alcohol is used in recipes (does it cook out or evaporate completely?), one thing is certain: with just half a cup of vodka in this entire dish, it is completely safe (and delicious) for every member of the family to enjoy.

What Kind of Pasta Goes with Vodka Sauce?

We use penne for this dish, but the sauce is so good, the sky’s the limit! We like to make extra of this creamy vodka sauce, freeze it, and then use it for future dishes like:

  • Pizza! Just spread the vodka sauce over your dough, and top with fresh mozzarella.
  • Linguine! Toss the long noodles with the sauce in a hot pan and top with plenty of parmesan cheese.  
  • Lasagna! Use the sauce in layers with lots of ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan!

How Do You Make Baked Penne Alla Vodka?

Just a few simple steps and you’re well on your way to making the best baked penne alla vodka ever!

  1. The Base. In a large pot heat sausage (we use pork, but chicken is just fine) until crumbly. Then, add the onion, garlic, and optional pancetta or prosciutto. Get everything nice and crispy.
  2. The Sauce. Add the vodka and the tomatoes, crushing them by hand (as recommended by my real-deal Italian friend from upstate New York). Simmer for 10-15 minutes to cook down the tomatoes. Add a little salt and a pinch of red pepper flakes.
  3. Make it Creamy. Stir in the heavy cream and parmigiano-reggiano. Are there any two ingredients that bring more joy?
  4. Pasta Time. Add chopped kale, ½ cup parsley, and dried penne to the pot and toss to coat. Transfer to a baking dish, add a little extra water and press as much dry pasta down into the liquid as possible, cover and place in the preheated oven. Bake the pasta for 40-45 minutes, then take off the lid and top with sliced mozzarella. Place it back in the oven until all brown and bubbly.

Craving More Simple Pasta Dishes?

These Easy Stuffed Shells are the ultimate crowd pleaser. Don’t have a crowd? They freeze well too!

The easiest one pot dish there ever was, this Creamy Mediterranean Chicken Pasta has been a fan favorite since day one.

If vodka sauce isn’t your thing, try this Pasta with Tomato Cream Sauce. Super satisfying and done in under 30 minutes!

Baked Penne Alla Vodka With Kale and fresh mozzarella

Tools You Will Need:

Your Win is Our Win!

If you make this creamy and dreamy baked penne alla vodka for a date night in, we want to hear about it! Post it to Instagram and tag @themodernproper and #themodernproper. Bonus points if whoever you serve it to spontaneously erupts in a happy dance. (Hey, it’s been known to happen!)

Baked Penne Alla Vodka

Serves 6

Ingredients

1 lb mild Italian sausage, ground
1/2 cup red onion, small dice
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 lb pancetta or prosciutto, diced (optional)
1/2 cup vodka
1 (28 oz) can whole tomatoes
1 (28 oz) can diced tomatoes
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 cups parmesan, grated or shaved
3 cups Italian (lacinato) kale, ribs removed, roughly chopped
1 cup flat leaf parsley, stems removed, roughly chopped, divided
1 lb penne pasta
1 cup water
1 (8 oz) ball fresh mozzarella
red chili flakes

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 375° F.
  2. In a large pot over medium heat cook the sausage until crumbly but not cooked all the way through. Add the onion and garlic and pancetta. Cook for 5 minutes until the onions soften and garlic is fragrant.
  3. Add the vodka and the tomatoes to the pot, crushing the whole tomatoes with your hands as you add them. Simmer for 10-15 minutes to burn off the alcohol and cook down the tomatoes.
  4. Add the salt, heavy cream and 1 ½ cups of the parmesan. Simmer another 5 minutes until nice and creamy.
  5. Add the chopped kale, ½ cup parsley and 1 cup water to the pot.
  6. Pour the uncooked penne pasta noodles into a 9x13 pan. Pour the contents of the pot over the noodles and toss to mix together evenly, pressing as much dry pasta down into the liquid as possible. Cover and place in the preheated oven.(If the pot you are using is capable of going in the oven, then just add the cup of water over the top, press as much dry pasta down into the liquid as possible, cover with a lid and place in the preheated oven.)
  7. Bake pasta dish covered for 40-45 minutes. Remove dish from the oven, take off the lid and place the sliced mozzarella onto the baked pasta. Place uncovered back in the oven for 10-15 minutes longer until the mozzarella is melted and the pasta sauce is bubbly. Sprinkle with remaining chopped parsley, remaining parmesan cheese and a few red chili flakes if desired.

* Note: You can always sub crushed tomatoes for the whole tomatoes, but we find the whole tomatoes offer a much richer flavor and a thicker sauce.