That Spicy Chick

Spicy Vodka Pasta

This Spicy Vodka Pasta is easy to make, and full of BIG, bright, and BOLD flavors! Pasta and perfectly cooked juicy prawns get tossed in a luxurious tomato vodka sauce with a spicy sharp bite from Calabrian chili pepper paste. Perfect for date night, entertaining, or any night in!

Close-up top view of plate with Spicy Vodka Pasta with Prawns garnished with cheese and basil.

Vodka pasta sauce has been around for many years. You’ve probably heard of or tried the classic Penne Alla Vodka dish that is popular at Italian-American restaurants. It’s made with onion, garlic, crushed tomatoes, heavy cream, and spiked with vodka to add a bite of heat.

My version of spicy vodka pasta was partly inspired by the Spicy Vodka Rigatoni dish at Mario Carbone’s restaurants – Carbone – in New York and Hong Kong. I’ve taken a leaf out of their book and added hot Calabrian chili pepper paste to the sauce. The extra kick of smoky heat makes this particular tomato vodka sauce out-of-this-word DELICIOUS!!

But unlike Carbone, I’ve used a combination of tomato paste AND canned chopped tomatoes, and they both work together to give this dish a robustly rich and bright tomato flavor. I’ve also added a protein to make this magnificent pasta dish even more satiating – perfectly cooked JUICY jumbo buttery prawns. 😍

While it’s spicier than your typical vodka pasta thanks to the addition of fresh red chilies as well as other heat elements, you can of course make it as mild or spicy as you like. 👌

But if you’re a spicy food lover like me, you’ll have one bite and realize that this showstopping dish is the spicy vodka pasta of dreams!

Fork in a prawn and pasta tube in a plate of pasta in tomato vodka sauce.

Why This Recipe Works

  • Calabrian chili pepper paste kicks up the heat level a notch with its spicy smoky flavors.
  • Tube-shaped pasta with ridges allows the rich tomato cream sauce to cling onto the pasta perfectly.
  • Using both double concentrated tomato paste and canned chopped tomatoes ensures that there is ample sauce for the pasta. The paste gives this dish a spectacular in-your-face bold and rich tomato flavor, while the canned chopped tomatoes add a lighter and bright tomato flavor.
  • You can blend the sauce to make it smoother, or enjoy it rustic-style based on your preference.
  • Adding fresh basil at the end balances out the rich flavors in the sauce.
Close-up front left side view of plate with spicy vodka pasta with prawns.

Ingredients

Labeled ingredients for Spicy Vodka Pasta with Prawns on a wooden board.
  • Prawns: I used jumbo black tiger prawns (size: 16/20). But feel free to use shrimp if you prefer or have them on hand. Or if you’d like to make this vegetarian, simply omit the prawns and use more pasta.
  • Pasta: For vodka sauce, a tubular pasta shape works best. I went with mezze paccheri rigati, which is a thick tube-shaped pasta with perfect ridges to soak up the sauce.
  • Unsalted Butter: To cook the prawns, and to make the sauce rich and velvety.
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Adds flavor depth, but a good quality olive oil can be used instead too.
  • Red Chilies (optional): I used Bird’s Eye, but any small hot red chilies will work. You can leave it out or use less if you’d like to make this dish milder.
  • Calabrian Chili Pepper Paste/Sauce: This is smoky and spicy chili paste made with Italian hot chili pepper, and it adds a tremendous depth of flavor to the pasta sauce! Once you try it, you’re going to want to put it on everything – from meats, veggies, eggs, to sandwiches and whatnot! It comes in glass jars and can be found at Whole Foods, Williams Sonoma, and on Amazon.
  • Double Concentrated Tomato Paste: This adds a rich and bold tomato flavor to the sauce. If using regular tomato paste, use a 6 ounce can instead.
  • Canned Chopped Tomatoes: Or you can use crushed. Several recipes will tell you that whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes (hand crushed or pureed) are best for tomato vodka sauce. However, in my honest and humble opinion, they are overhyped (and more expensive) and not absolutely necessary to make the perfect vodka sauce. I found them to make this dish too sweet after testing this recipe four times. So I switched to using my favorite and go-to canned chopped tomatoes – Waitrose’s Italian Chopped Tomatoes with Olive Oil & Garlic and the flavors in the dish came out better, brighter, and not overbearingly sweet. So to sum up, use good quality canned chopped/crushed tomatoes that you love, and I guarantee you’ll love the flavors in your tomato vodka sauce!
  • Crushed Red Pepper Chili Flakes: Use less or more (or omit) depending on your heat preference.
  • Ground Cayenne: Ditto the above.
  • Vodka: Any brand you like or have on hand will work.
  • Heavy Cream: Also known as double or whipping cream. It adds a silky and creamy richness to the tomato sauce. Use one with at least 35% fat content for best results.
  • Italian Basil: To round out the spicy and rich flavors in the sauce at the end. Dried basil just won’t give you the same freshness or flavor that using fresh basil will.

Full ingredient list and amounts are in the recipe card below.

Top view of Spicy Vodka Pasta with Prawns in a large black pan.

How to Make Spicy Vodka Pasta

1. Cook the pasta: In a pot of boiling salted water 2 minutes shy of al-dente. Reserve some of the pasta water, then drain and set aside.

2. Cook the prawns: Season the prawns with salt and pepper. Then cook in unsalted butter in a large nonstick skillet. Set the pan aside once cooked through.

Prawns cooking in butter in a skillet.

3. Sauté onion, garlic, fresh red chilies. In unsalted butter and extra virgin olive oil in a large deep sauté pan, until fragrant.

4. Add the Calabrian chili sauce. Sauté briefly to combine.

5. Build the tomato sauce. Add the tomato paste, chopped canned tomatoes, and all of the spices and seasonings. Use the back of a wooden spoon or spatula to “smush” the chopped tomatoes, and cook for a few minutes until the mixture has darkened and thickened.

Blend the sauce (optional). At this point and if you prefer a smoother instead of rustic sauce, you can transfer the tomato mixture to a blender (or use a handheld immersion blender) and blend until smooth. Return the blended sauce to the pan and set to medium-high heat.

6. Deglaze the pan. Add the vodka and cook for a minute or so, until you can’t smell the alcohol anymore.

Process steps: Sautéing onion, garlic, chilies, tomato mixture, and pouring vodka in pan.

7. Stir in the cream. Add some of the reserved pasta water and stir to combine. Bring the sauce up to a gentle simmer.

8. Add cheese. Mix until it has melted.

9. Add the pasta and prawns. Toss until fully coated with the sauce, and the sauce has slightly thickened.

10. Stir through basil. Then switch off the heat.

Process steps: Tomato cream sauce in pan, adding cheese, pasta, prawns, and basil.

11. Serve! Divide evenly onto plates and garnish with more grated Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese and basil, and a drizzle of Calabrian chili oil from the paste jar if desired. Serve immediately and enjoy!

Top view of plate with a fork and pan with spicy vodka pasta with prawns.

Full detailed instructions are in the recipe card below.

Cook’s Tips

  • Use good quality pasta. A high-quality Italian pasta will make all the difference and taste better with the sauce than your regular everyday supermarket pasta.
  • Use good quality canned tomatoes that you like. Don’t feel compelled to splurge on a can of San Marzano tomatoes (unless you love the taste of them). You can use any canned crushed or chopped tomatoes that you enjoy.
  • Don’t overcook the prawns. They can go from juicy and perfectly cooked to rubbery and tough in a matter of seconds. Make sure your pan is not too hot when you add them to it, and cook only until just cooked through.
  • Blend the tomato mixture for a smoother sauce. You can use either a traditional blender or handheld immersion blender to make the sauce smooth before adding the vodka and cream.
  • Be careful when adding the vodka to the pan. Vodka is highly flammable, so make sure the pan is not too hot, and be careful not to spill any on the outside edges of the pan. Using a measuring cup makes it easier to avoid spills than pouring straight out of the bottle.
  • Move quickly after adding the vodka. So that you don’t lose the sharp bite it adds to the tomato cream sauce. Your pasta should be off the heat 5-7 minutes after adding the vodka at the most.
  • Don’t skimp on the basil. Fresh Italian basil compliments the creamy tomato sauce with its fresh brightness, and rounds out the flavors in the spicy tomato cream sauce.
Close-up of fork in a prawn and pasta tube on a plate.

FAQs

Why put vodka in pasta sauce?

When vodka touches the tomatoes in the hot pan, it extracts a new flavor from them that they didn’t have before. It adds flavor depth by adding a subtle kick of heat and sharp bite, which balances of the acidity and sweetness of the tomatoes in the creamy tomato sauce.

Can vodka pasta make you drunk?

No. Most of the vodka burns off during cooking so very little alcohol remains in the dish at the end. But it does its job of infusing the tomato sauce with a kick of spice, and you can’t distinguishably detect any strong vodka flavor in the sauce.

Which vodka to use?

When it comes to cooking with alcohol, you should always use something you enjoy drinking. If you’re not a vodka drinker, know that you don’t need to splurge on a high-quality expensive vodka for this recipe. Any affordable vodka that you can get your hands on or may already have at home will work for this sauce.

What pasta is best to use with vodka sauce?

Short-cut tube-shaped pasta is best for the sauce to cling onto. Some great options are mezze paccheri, paccheri, penne, pipe rigate, or rigatoni. That being said, you can use any short-cut pasta or noodle-type pasta you have on hand in a pinch.

What to serve with vodka pasta?

Since the sauce is incredibly rich in flavor, a simple salad would pair well with this pasta dish. It’ll also cut through the richness and spiciness in the sauce.

Top view of plate and a pan with tomato sauce pasta with prawns. Text overlay "Spicy Vodka Pasta with Juicy Jumbo Prawns" and "thatspicychick.com".

More Delicious Pastas


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Close-up top view of plate with Spicy Vodka Pasta with Prawns garnished with cheese and basil.

Spicy Vodka Pasta with Prawns

5 from 2 reviews

Tube-shaped pasta and perfectly cooked buttery prawns get tossed in a luscious tomato vodka sauce with a spicy sharp bite from Calabrian chili pepper paste. Perfect for date night, entertaining, or any night in!

  • Author: Lavina
  • Prep Time: 10
  • Cook Time: 25
  • Total Time: 35 minutes
  • Yield: 4 1x
  • Category: Dinner
  • Method: Sauté
  • Cuisine: Italian-American
Scale

Ingredients

For the Prawns:

  • 12 ounces / 340 grams peeled and deveined Jumbo Black Tiger Prawns (size: 16/20) – rinsed thoroughly and pat-dried (or shrimp)
  • ½ TSP Kosher Salt, to taste
  • ¼ TSP freshly cracked Black Pepper, to taste
  • 1.5 TBLS Unsalted Butter, for cooking

For the Spicy Vodka Pasta:

  • 12 ounces / 340 grams Mezze Paccheri Rigati Pasta (or any other tube-shaped pasta such as pipe rigate, penne, rigatoni, etc.)
  • 2 TBLS Unsalted Butter
  • 3 TBLS Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • ½ medium Yellow Onion – thinly sliced into half moons
  • 6 Garlic cloves – minced
  • 28 Red Chilies (I used Bird’s Eye, but any small hot red chilies will work), to taste – finely chopped
  • 4 TBLS Hot Calabrian Chili Pepper Paste/Sauce
  • 1 tube (4.5 ounces / 130 grams) Double Concentrated Tomato Paste
  • 1 (14 ounces / 400 grams) can chopped or crushed Tomatoes (I used Waitrose’s Italian Chopped Tomatoes with Olive Oil & Garlic)
  • ½ TSP White Sugar
  • 1.5 TSP Crushed Red Pepper Chili Flakes, to taste
  • 1 TSP Ground Cayenne, to taste
  • 2 TSP Kosher Salt, to taste
  • ½ TSP freshly cracked Black Pepper, to taste
  • ¼ cup Vodka
  • 200 ml / ¾ cup + 1 TBLS Heavy Cream (Double/Whipping Cream with minimum 35% fat content)
  • ¼ cup Reserved Pasta Water
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) Cheese
  • ½ cup fresh Italian Basil Leaves – sliced into thin strips
  • To Serve: More grated Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese, more sliced Italian Basil, a drizzle of chili oil from the jar of Calabrian Chili Sauce

Instructions

Prep:

  1. Prepare the fresh ingredients: Chop the onion, garlic, red chilies, and basil as indicated in the ‘Ingredients’ section.

For the Spicy Vodka Pasta with Prawns:

  1. Cook the pasta: Cook the pasta in a large pot (or use the same deep sauté pan you’ll use for the pasta dish) filled with boiling salted water 2 minutes shy of al-dente according to package instructions. Reserve ½ cup of pasta water, then drain and set aside. (I like to run water over the pasta to halt the cooking process and prevent it from sticking.)
  2. Cook the prawns: Rinse the prawns thoroughly and pat-dry with paper towels and place on a large plate. Season with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste. Heat 1.5 tablespoons of unsalted butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Once melted and starting to froth, add the prawns and cook undisturbed for a minute. Then turn them over and cook the other side for another 1-2 minutes, until no longer opaque and just cooked through. Switch of the heat and set the pan aside.
  3. Sauté onion and aromatics: Heat 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter and 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a large deep sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the onion and garlic and sauté for 1-2 minutes, until the onion has softened and the garlic is fragrant, but not browned. Add the red chilies and sauté for 30 seconds to combine.
  4. Build the tomato sauce: Add the Calabrian chili pepper paste and sauté briefly to combine. Then add the tomato paste, chopped canned tomatoes, and season with white sugar, crushed red pepper chili flakes, ground cayenne, kosher salt, and freshly cracked black pepper. Using the back of a wooden spoon or spatula, “smush” the chopped tomatoes, and cook for 6-8 minutes while stirring occasionally, until the tomato mixture has darkened and thickened. (Note: At this point, you can transfer the tomato mixture to a blender (or use an immersion handheld blender) to blend until smooth if you prefer a smoother instead of rustic-style sauce. Return the blended tomato mixture back to the pan and set to medium-high heat.)
  5. Deglaze the pan: Pour in the vodka and deglaze the pan for 1 minute, until the vodka mostly cooks off and you can’t smell the alcohol.
  6. Stir in cream: Stir in the heavy cream and add 4 tablespoons of reserved pasta water. Stir to combine, the bring the sauce up to a gentle simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
  7. Add cheese, pasta, and prawns: Stir in the cheese until melted. Then add the pasta and prawns, along with any butter in the skillet. Toss for 1-2 minutes, until fully coated in the sauce and the sauce has slightly thickened.
  8. Stir through basil: Stir in the fresh Italian basil, then switch off the heat.
  9. To Serve: Divide the pasta evenly onto plates and garnish with more grated Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese, basil, and a drizzle of Calabrian chili oil from the paste jar if desired. Serve immediately and enjoy!

Notes

  1. Prawns: Use double the amount indicated if not already peeled and deveined. Shrimp can be used instead if preferred.
  2. To make this vegetarian: Omit the prawns and use 1 pound of pasta instead of 12 ounces.
  3. Double Concentrated Tomato Paste: If using regular tomato paste, use a 6 ounce can instead.
  4. Canned chopped tomatoes: Use good quality canned chopped or crushed tomatoes that you like. Don’t feel compelled to splurge on a can of San Marzano tomatoes (unless you love their taste).
  5. Use good quality pasta. A high-quality Italian pasta will make all the difference and taste better with the sauce than your regular everyday supermarket pasta.
  6. Be careful when adding the vodka to the pan. Vodka is highly flammable, so make sure the pan is not too hot, and be careful not to spill any on the outside edges of the pan. Using a measuring cup makes it easier to avoid spills than pouring straight out of the bottle.
  7. Storing: Store any leftovers in a sealed airtight container in the fridge for 2-3 days.
  8. Recipe inspired by the Spicy Rigatoni Vodka dish at Carbone and Serious Eats

Nutrition

  • Serving Size: 1 plate
  • Calories: 903
  • Sugar: 14.2g
  • Sodium: 1092.8mg
  • Fat: 43.6g
  • Saturated Fat: 20.9g
  • Unsaturated Fat: 11.7g
  • Trans Fat: 0.7g
  • Carbohydrates: 85.8g
  • Fiber: 6.2g
  • Protein: 36.7g
  • Cholesterol: 174.4mg

The nutritional information provided is approximate and can vary based on several factors. It should only be used as a general guideline. For more information, please see our Disclosure.

This post may contain affiliate links. We are a part of the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you) by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. The nutritional information provided is approximate and can vary based on several factors. It should only be used as a general guideline. For more information, please see our Disclosure.

4 comments on “Spicy Vodka Pasta”

  1. Excellent penne alla vodka recipe. We all loved it… used each type of spice, but reduced quantity. Will definitely make again… with more of the spice😊

  2. I recently made this and it turned out excellent! I blended the tomato mixture as I prefer a smoother texture, and it was perfect for me. I also used just 2 red chilies and halved the amount of ground cayenne and crushed red pepper flakes. As someone who has had the Carbone Spicy Vodka Rigatoni multiple times, I can honestly tell you that I much prefer your recipe! The dish was rich and flavourful with just the right amount of spice – I will definitely be making it again.

    • Thank you Mary for such a wonderful review!! 🙂 I’ll be honest, I found the original dish at Carbone good, but slightly bland. Hence this recipe doubles down on the tomato flavors with the addition of tomato paste and extra spice. 😉 I’m so happy you enjoyed it!! You made my day, and thanks for coming back to comment.

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