Civilization of humans happened because of food. When we discovered that we could harvest, hold and share food, we built early communities, that became early societies. The very first structure that defined a society were built around food and it’s disbursement.

At some point we started recording how the food was split. If we could for instance take some grains and boil it we could make food. If we could do the same thing the next day, well that would be magic. This was the very first recipe, nothing more then how much of grain to how much of water and for how much time, but, it was the beginning of culinary culture.

In that there is the basis of science, since if you can reproduce and effect over and over, that is the definition of science. Recipes are the science of food, being able to reproduce a meal and have it be the same, over and over, and it blew people’s minds.

Soon these early recipes became extremely valuable. Being able to make food taste and perform the same, over and over, seemed God-like. It was the origin of magic. What else is a spell book if not a recipe book for magic. Food is magic you can eat, much like any potion.

“Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blindworm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing.”

Sounds like a recipe to me Shakespeare. Magic is simply uncomprehended science. Why mixing these ingredients give it secret powers, or in the case of food, tastes, is a mystery unless you know the science.

So when I hear “the best recipe” or “the best version” I lose my appetite a bit. Taste is like art, there is only opinion. You can agree what two paintings are about. You can even agree in what style or technique employed, but you can never empirically say one is “better” then the other or the “best” version of something.

So it goes with food, which is why I wanted to discover how far you can go with a recipe to exhaust it’s possibility, if at all possible. I was looking for the best, and decided I had to go deeper then anyone else had ever gone. Best of what you ask?

Penne Alla Vodka

I chose Penne Alla Vodka because it’s a rediculous dish. It has no established origin, there are lot’s of varieties, and everyone does it a bit different and says it is the best. No one can claim ownership over it and it is, for the most part, not Italian or anything else. It is … an enigma.

To get to the bottom of this dish I had to start at the beginning. While it’s origins are murky at best, I did find a source. Mr. Ugo Tognazzi.

Tognazzi was a pretty famous Italian actor in the 60’s. He did a film called La Grande Bouffe, which is about a group of friends that get together and eat themselves to death (it was the 60’s and neorealism was in full swing). Tognazzi was surrounded by some of the best in that film, most his dearest friends. The story goes that having dove so deep in the role, the process caused him a severe mental breakdown, and made him go crazy.

Afterwards Tognazzi indeed seemed crazy, especially about food. He became obsessed with it in odd ways, like pranking friends but only with using elaborate stunts revolving around food. At the height of this madness he wrote a book. A cookbook. In it we see the mother sauce to Alla Vodka … the Al’infuriata.

Penne Al’Infuriata is the first written use of vodka in Italian cooking. The reason behind this is unclear, but Tognazzi clearly uses a Polish Chili Vodka that is very strong, along with tomato and garlic to make an epic late night/dopo-disco snack.

At some point that simple recipe morphs into the sauce we know today, which generally is Tomato, Cream and garlic, although, like I said, variations exist. The beauty of the dish is it’s range. You could have a 8 dollar diner version delivered 24/7 to your NYC apartment, or, you can make a reservation 4 months out at Carbone to tuck into their $35 dollar version that doesn’t even use vodka.

So what is the best? Well, for that we need more info, which is why I brought it to some chef’s to get their low-down on it. I of course went to an Italian, Pasquale Cozzolino, who would give me a traditional take. Then an American, Jeremy Spector, to get a new world familiar take. I also put a korean lens on it with Chef Jae Lee, and even a Caribbean take with Chef JJ in Harlem. Each culinary expert saw the dish a different way, each had a new ingredient or technique to share, no two recipes were at all the same. This was the key to it all.

Lastly I wanted to get to the science of it, since all recipes are just equations at its base. So I talked to chemists and molecular gastronomist Herve This to understand what magic is happening in the pan, chiefly, if the use of ethanol in the form of Vodka had any effect, chemically, on the sauce. After running a few tests the results were in, and yes, ethanol creates alkolates with certain molecules which indeed change the flavor of the dish.

So, what do you do with all this info? Experiment. To me cooking isn’t about the “recipe”. Too often we are caught up in “the best”. I hate it. It destroys the magic of food. One person says “Carbone has the best pasta” and then not only can you never get a reservation, but no one bothers to try any other pasta out there. People that do go all agree because, well, they were told it is the best, and it’s a never ending cycle that falsely elevates one place and destroys all the budding contenders.

Instead I suggest doing what food is inherently perfect at doing: combining. Just like we mix ingredients to form a new dish, we mix recipes, techniques and flavors to make a new recipe. It is with this intrepid, experimental philosophy that I give you the well researched, well tested, and very well received ULTIMATE PENNE ALLA VODKA.

In a cast iron skillet add garlic cloves, tomatoes, chili flakes, bay leaves and lots of olive oil. You are going slow roast everything at 250 degrees fahrenheit for 3 hours. This will umami-fy your tomato and garlic to new levels.

Drain and save the oil. Place all of the roasted tomatoes, along with all of the now confit garlic, into a blender and puree until a smooth consistency. 

Next, warm up a large skillet and add a bit of the oil, along with half a stick of unsalted, high quality butter. 

Roughly chop a yellow onion and add to the pan. Let the onion slowly caramelize on low heat stirring often for about an hour.  This is the secret to the vodka-less Carbone pasta.

Next, prepare your chili vodka by adding a good pinch of chili flakes to two ounces of any vodka in a bowl. Add in a large tablespoon of Gochujang Korean fermented chili paste and stir until dissolved. Chef Jae Lee will be your new hero.

Time to get your pasta water ready, so throw a pot of cold water on the stove. 

By now your onions should be the color of gold and ready to be added to your tomato puree. Add them to the blended tomato and garlic and blitz until silky smooth. 

Next take your chili vodka and deglaze the pan that had the onions with it. Carefully burn off any residual vodka left in the pan, and extinguish any remaining flame with your sauce. You will marvel how creamy your sauce is without any cream in it.

At this point your water is boiling. salt it well and throw in your pasta of choice (rigatoni is the way to go here.) 

When they are about 2 minutes out from al dente drain and save some of the pasta water. Add the pasta to the pan of sauce and let them finish cooking there, stirring and moving constantly, adding pasta water if the sauce gets too thick. This will make it unbelievably rich and creamy. 

When they are cooked to perfection add a crack of fresh pepper and it’s time to plate. First a little parmiggiano sets the stage in the bottom of the bowl. Then your beautiful pasta, a little parmiggiano topper, a crack of pepper, and the rest is just for you to enjoy. 

And if you’re wondering how I got to this level of alla vodka excellence be sure to check out my documentary “Disco Sauce: The True Untold story of Penne Alla Vodka”.