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Meanwhile, home cooks joined the mad dash. In late 2012, with Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust, Ina Garten shared the recipe for her version of Pasta alla Vecchia Bettola, a vodka sauce that gets extra depth from a jaunt into the oven. It had been a staple at Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton for more than 20 years.
Further west, Jon & Vinny’s persuaded large swaths of Angelenos to reengage with carbs and dairy when it opened in 2015, a sort of West Coast interpretation of Carbone with brighter lighting but just as much hype. “There are only 45 seats here. I wouldn’t count on a table soon,” wrote Jonathan Gold in his review that year. (Beyoncé and Jay-Z also stopped there for a late dinner after Beyoncé played Coachella in 2018, and Chrissy Teigen lists it among her favorite LA restaurants.) On its menu was a fusilli alla vodka as well as a “Ham & Yeezy” pizza, with vodka sauce, red onion, caciocavallo, smoked mozzarella, pickled Fresno chiles, and, of course, ham. (Today, the dish is named “Ham & Eazy.”) The same year, Bon Appétit ran the recipe for fusilli alla vodka from Jon & Vinny’s. This publication’s original recipe for rigatoni with easy vodka sauce, published in 2018, also remains one of the most viewed recipes every month.
It’s creamy. It’s cheesy. It’s tangy. And it’s about to be your new favorite pantry pasta.
So by the time Hadid released her own take in 2020, vodka sauce had already become a harbinger of a certain sort of home cook. The sort who had been to, or at least heard of, those restaurants you need to know somebody’s cousin who works in PR to even think about getting into.
But vodka sauce may not have peaked yet. Not even close. Just last month, New York Times cooking writer Eric Kim—whose recipes more often than not explode into the viral canon, and who is, full disclosure, my friend—ran his own vodka sauce recipe (with extra liquor and dollops of ricotta on top to temper). It’s already nearing 1,000 reviews. He says he was driven to develop his own recipe to find out what the vodka actually does. Why vodka sauce is so irresistible. His twofold theory: The vodka helps with the emulsion, and the ethanol helps one’s mouth experience the other flavors in a heightened fashion.
It’s deceptively easy to make, which may be another reason why it is so irresistible—why the cult of vodka sauce only seems to swell. And, “it’s not expensive,” says Pelosi. “I always tell people, use bottom shelf vodka.” That, plus tomato paste, Parmesan or Pecorino, and cream—plus an allium, if you please—will get you most of the way there. Any standard variation can go from ingredient to plated dish in under an hour, with just two pots and a wood spoon dirtied in the process.
Yet despite its simplicity, vodka sauce projects an allure that a basic marinara simply does not. “Vodka sauce is the mysterious girl in the corner at the party who you want to get to know,” Pelosi says. “She’s a pink or orange sauce, has alcohol in her, and you want to know what’s happening.” Like a bubbling curry or a hot skillet full of bulgogi, vodka sauce has undeniable sensory appeal, too, from the moment tomato paste hits hot fat and turns brick red and fills the kitchen with waves of sharp sweetness. “Not only is it inappropriately thick (same) and illegally glossy (also same), but it tastes how comfort feels,” writes Pelosi in the headnote for his recipe.
In spite of, well, everything, Isidori says that it took him by surprise when his spicy, exceptionally cheesy take on vodka sauce at Arthur & Sons went viral on TikTok last summer. Now, though, Isidori says vodka sauce has reached a point where it defies the bust part of the viral trend cycle. It isn’t “gimmicky stunt food,” he says. “It’s a wholesome comfort food.”
Accessibility, with a hint of that branded glamour, may be vodka sauce’s final form. Late last year, Rubirosa unleashed its famous vodka sauce by the jar for direct sale to customers anywhere in the country. So far? It’s been a “runaway star,” says Musacchio, who reports that it’s sold “like crazy” in Florida, Chicago, and California. Heinz and Absolut have just announced a partnership to peddle their own version of the concoction, in jars. Isidori has already been approached to bottle his blend too—Arthur & Sons’ vodka sauce is expected to hit the market this year.
He’s optimistic about vodka sauce’s future. “If you can combine pasta and cheese in a sexy, velvety sauce, you have a winner,” he says. “I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”
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