“I can’t wait to go to Rome. Chicken parmesan is my favorite food ever. I’m going to eat sooo much chicken parmesan when I’m in Rome!!!”
Hmm, not quite. This remark was said to me a couple of years ago by a college classmate who was preparing to study for a month in Rome. I kindly had to explain to her that she would never find chicken parmesan in Rome – or in Italy, for that matter – but that she would surely try lots of other actual Italian dishes that would be much better. Confusion and then disappointment ensued. She did not take the news well.
Being raised in a family with grandparents from Italy (Calabria and Le Marche, to be exact) and then later living in Italy has taught me that Italian cuisine – real, authentic Italian food – is quite different compared to Italian American cuisine, or rather food that is perceived as Italian by most Americans. The influx of Italian immigrants to the U.S (especially between the years 1880-1920) made the presence of Italian food more prominent in the U.S; and, with time, this Italian food evolved to become a whole different sort of cuisine. Our chicken parmesan, spaghetti and meatballs, and pepperoni pizza differ greatly from anything that falls within the realm of authentic Italian food, a land where ingredients are fresher, portions are smaller, and the overall dish is simpler. Real Italian food means cooking pasta until it is al dente, never serving seafood with cheese, and that peperoni are bell peppers, not a type of sausage. Italian American food is a bit like the louder, obnoxious fraternal twin of actual Italian food; both share a few traits (the use of tomato sauce, cheese, and pasta) but actually are two completely different entities.
I have found however a dish that is a middle ground, a sort of overlap between Italian and American cuisine – penne alla vodka, or pasta made with tomatoes, cream, and, of course, vodka. I say overlap because it is not clear whether this dish originated in Italy or in America. Some claim that the dish was invented at Dante, a restaurant in Bologna, Italy, while others recognize an American chef named James Doty as the true creator. Other still assert that Luigi Franzese, a Neapolitan cook who had immigrated to the U.S created the recipe in the New York restaurant Orsini in the 1970s, and other still say that the recipe was developed by a chef in Rome in the 1980s for a vodka company that was hoping to popularize its brand in Italy. Regardless of its origins, penne alla vodka is a dish that can be categorized as both Italian and Italian American food, as it can be found and is enjoyed in both countries (though the Italian version often has the addition of speck*). It is a dish that provides a bridge between what are usually two very different cuisines.
My version of this dish is more in line with the Italian American cuisine – no speck here, and I use chicken broth, which isn’t a very traditional ingredient for pasta sauce, but which adds a nice depth of flavor. Penne alla vodka is easy to make and always a crowd pleaser, one of my most requested dishes by friends and family (my friend from Nepal declared it to be the best pasta he’s ever had, anywhere!)
Serve this dish with some freshly grated parmesan cheese and a loaf of crusty bread to not let any of the sauce go to waste. Buon appetito!
PENNE ALLA VODKA
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ of a small onion, chopped
1 cup vodka
1 cup chicken stock
1 can crushed tomatoes (32 ounces)
salt and pepper
¼ - 1/2 cup heavy cream
20 leaves fresh basil, shredded or torn
Heat a large skillet over moderate heat. Heat the oil and add the chopped onion. Cook the onion until it is soft and translucent.
Add vodka to the pan. Reduce vodka by half, which should take about 3 minutes. Add the chicken stock and crushed tomatoes and stir to combine. Bring the sauce to a bubble and let cook for about 10 or so minutes, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Season the sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Let the vodka sauce cook on very low heat for about half an hour, or until the consistency is on the thicker side. Make sure you stir the sauce so it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.
While sauce simmers, cook the penne in salted boiling water for about 11-12 minutes for al dente pasta.
Stir the cream into the sauce – start by adding ¼ of a cup, and if you decide you want more, go ahead and add another ¼ cup. Remove the sauce from the heat, and add the basil leaves, stirring to combine. Toss the pasta with the vodka sauce, and serve with parmesan cheese and bread. This recipes makes enough for 4-6 people, depending on how hungry they are!