Carbone Spicy Rigatoni Vodka
If you are an Instagram user who followers a lot of food accounts, chances are you’ve heard of and seen drool worthy photos of Carbone’s spicy rigatoni vodka alllll over your feed. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Carbone is an upscale, Italian-American restaurant in New York City known for their upscale Italian food. They’re also known to be a pricy establishment with many celebrity clientele…their spicy rigatoni vodka lists at $32 on the menu, which is *pretty* high for a simple pasta dish. Because many of us can’t afford to drop $32 on a pasta dish (and spend hundreds of dollars for a full dinner) on the reg, I wanted to share with you how you can make this incredible dish at home for only $10 (give or take) depending on where you shop and what you already have in your cupboards.
For reference, here is the original Carbone spicy rigatoni vodka! Not trying to toot my own horn, but it looks almost identical to mine.
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You know I love to drop some history about these dishes that we all know and love, so here’s my little vodka sauce spiel. Pasta with vodka sauce is an Italian-American invention. Alcohol (vodka) is used to release the flavors from tomatoes, but in Italy, the alcohol is usually wine. Mario Carbone is the inventor of the spicy rigatoni vodka which is most likely a spin on penne alla vodka. The latter was first seen in 1974 in a cookbook by actor Ugo Tognazzi and the dish was called “pasta all’infuriata. In other words, “furious pasta,” which I find interesting because vodka sauce makes me anything but furious. It’s kind of the key to my soul and makes me super happy. I would have called it “pasta that opens the soul,” but that’s just me.
In all seriousness, the “furious” term is probably used to describe the heat of the Calabrian chiles used in spicy rigatoni vodka. These peppers are medium-hot and named after the Italian region of their origin, Calabria. Their flavor is unique and distinguished with their smoky, fruity, and slightly salty notes. In this dish, I used whole Calabrian chili peppers that I hand chopped. You can buy them pre-chopped or as chili paste, but for a nice texture, they are best hand-chopped. If you can’t find Calabrian chiles, I think you can use pepperoncinis as well. These peppers are pickled, green, and contain a little bit of heat, and sweetness. I added some to my sauce and they add a bit of tanginess and less heat. I thought it was delicious! By the way, if you can’t handle the heat, skip the peppers all together!
The sauce for spicy rigatoni vodka is a classic vodka sauce. This is a tomato-based sauce with heavy cream. The pan is glazed with vodka, picking up the golden brown bits on the bottom of the pan. So you have this bitter, intense alcohol adding flavor to your sauce and complementing the acidity of the tomatoes. It’s perfect alchemy.
In Carbone’s original version of this dish, a classic rigatoni is used. This is a large type of pasta. For my version though I chose to use conchiglie pasta. The name derives from “conchiglia”, the Italian word for seashell. This is also what the pasta looks like and its curved shape is excellent for holding sauce. But you can also go with any type of rigatoni — a rigatoni mezze for example.
Here’s one step that you can’t miss!!! For my recipe, I include a step where we “toast” the tomato paste in the pan, causing it to impart browned bits onto the pan. Brown bits = flavor. This is where you get this sweet, intensified, caramelized tomato taste. I also recommend grating or finely mincing the garlic to avoid chunks and so that it just melts away in the sauce. I made this recipe in around 30-40 minutes so it’s a quick and easy yet impressive dish to make.
Is there a vegan version of this dish?
Yes, I have a recipe for vegan gluten-free spicy rigatoni vodka which has a dairy-free, vegan version of the sauce. And to make it gluten-free you can use chickpea pasta or gluten-free rigatoni.
Do you have a non-spicy version?
If you don’t like heat, you can skip the peppers. You can chop up sun-dried tomatoes and add 1-2 teaspoons into the sauce for a deep caramelized flavor.
Spicy Rigatoni Vodka
- 2 tbsp olive oil for pan
- 1/2 white onion finely chopped
- Kosher salt to taste
- 3 cloves garlic grated into a paste
- 1 tsp Calabrian chili peppers finely chopped
- 1/2 cup tomato paste
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 lb conchiglie (or a pasta of your choice)
- 1/4 cup vodka
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- 2/3 cup parmesan cheese
Spicy Rigatoni Vodka
- Season a large pot or skillet with olive oil and heat on medium heat.
- Add the onion. Season with a generous pinch of salt and cook for 5 minutes, tossing every 1 minute or so until the onions are softened and translucent.
- Add the Calabrian chili peppers and garlic and cook for 2 minutes, until fragrant.
- Adjust the heat to medium high and add the tomato paste to the pan. Mix to combine with the other ingredients, then add 1 tbsp of butter into the tomato paste mixture. Let it melt, add a generous pinch of salt and stir together. Cook the tomato paste for approximately 7-9 minutes, letting the tomato paste brown on the bottom of the pan. If the pan is drying up, add a little more olive oil. Toss every 1-2 minutes or so to prevent uneven cooking.
- While the tomato paste is cooking, fill a large stockpot with water and season with 3 tablespoons of kosher salt. Bring to a boil.
- Pour the vodka into the pan, over top of the tomato paste and scrape up all golden brown bits from the bottom. Mix all of the ingredients together. Adjust the heat to low and add the heavy cream. Stir until combined and let it simmer on low heat.
- Add the pasta to the pot and cook until al dente according to the package instructions (should be about 8 minutes.)
- Adjust the heat on the sauce to medium-low, then transfer 2/3 cup of pasta water and shredded Parmesan to the sauce and stir together. Taste to make sure the levels are salt are to your liking. If you would like more salt, feel free to add a light pinch or more cheese.
- Transfer the al dente pasta to the sauce and toss until fully coated. Feel free to shred more Parmesan onto the pasta as you toss it to develop a stickier texture. If you want the sauce to be more "saucy," add more pasta water. Remove the pasta from the heat when you reach a consistency you like! Enjoy immediately.