Penne alla Vecchia Bettola recipe from Barefoot Contessa Foolproof by Ina Garten

Anna Mintz is a Publicist for Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, and is an editor for The Recipe Club. Originally from Atlanta, she now lives in New York City and loves exploring NYC’s restaurant scene and trying out new recipes in her own kitchen.

This recipe from Barefoot Contessa Foolproof (Clarkson Potter, 2012) by Ina Garten comes from Nick & Toni’s, one of the great restaurants in East Hampton. The recipe originated from a restaurant in Florence, Italy, and Chef Joe Realmuto was kind enough to share it with Ina, who in turn has shared it with us in her newest cookbook. It’s like the old standby penne alla vodka but with so much more flavor.

Pouring in the vodka

Wonderful smells started wafting around my kitchen after cooking the onions and garlic in olive oil in a large ovenproof sauté pan for about 5 minutes. (Don’t worry; if you don’t have a twelve-inch ovenproof sauté pan with a tight-fitting lid, you can use a Dutch oven or large pot.) The next step was to crush the beautiful San Marzano tomatoes into the pan.

Draining the tomatoes

I loved this part! Warning: in my tomato-squishing enthusiasm, some of the tomatoes squirted onto me at first, so crush the tomatoes very carefully.

Squishing the tomatoes into the pan

After crushing the tomatoes directly into the pan, it was time to sit back and relax while the sauce baked in the oven for an hour and a half before adding the sauce to a blender to purée everything into a nice smooth mixture. During this time, we set to preparing the other elements of our meal: grilled shrimp and pork chops and a snap pea salad inspired by a great meal I’d had this fall at the NoMad in New York.

Tomatoes and onion mixture

The purpose of the vodka in the dish is to help release the flavors of the tomatoes that are normally inaccessible in regular tomato sauces. Boy, did this do the trick! Without a doubt, this sauce had the most layered flavors of any other sauce I’d made before. The crushed red pepper flakes, dried oregano, and vodka are the secret weapon ingredients — these elements totally made the dish the star of our meal. The best part was that there were plenty of leftovers for lunch the next day!

Lots of oregano gives this sauce tons of flavor

Penne alla Vecchia Bettola
Recipe from Barefoot Contessa Foolproof by Ina Garten

Serves 4

¼ cup good olive oil
2½ cups chopped Spanish onion (1 large)
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1½ teaspoons dried oregano
1 cup vodka
2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled plum tomatoes, drained
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
¾ pound penne, such as De Cecco
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano leaves, plus extra for serving
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Heat the oil in a large (12-inch) ovenproof sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, until the onions are translucent. Add the red pepper flakes and dried oregano and cook for 1 more minute. Add the vodka and simmer for 5 to 7 minutes, until the mixture is reduced by half. Using clean hands, crush each tomato into the pan. Add 2 teaspoons of salt and ½ teaspoon of black pepper. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, place in the oven, and bake for 1½ hours.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of salt and the pasta and cook according to the directions on the package. Drain and set aside.

Two cups at a time, carefully pour the tomato mixture into a blender and purée until smooth. Return the tomato mixture to the sauté pan (be careful; the handle is hot!). Add the fresh oregano, cream, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper and simmer partially covered for 10 minutes. Add the pasta to the sauce and cook for 2 more minutes. Stir in ½ cup of the Parmesan cheese and serve hot sprinkled with extra Parmesan and fresh oregano.