Heat from flavorful Calabrian chilis pairs perfectly with the richness of a classic pasta sauce in this spicy rigatoni vodka recipe. You'll love how easy this restaurant-quality meal is to make at home!
Spicy rigatoni has been having a ~moment~ on social media and the Internet thanks to the dish's popularity at the restaurant Carbone. The idea of spicing up vodka sauce with Calabrian chili peppers seemed more than doable at home and too good of an idea to pass up.
Now this is not intended to be a copycat recipe. For starters, I've never been! But from my view at home it seems like they don't use classic rigatoni at all, but rather curvy pipette or lumache pasta. Their sauce is quite smooth whereas mine is semi-textured, and its overall shininess? Possibly due to blending or added butter as many restaurants are wont to do, but is in my opinion not necessary here with the cream and everything else.
What you'll get is a seriously tasty spin on pasta alla vodka. A moderate level of spice works exceedingly well to cut through the richness and add flavor to a modern take on a classic.
Why You'll Love Spicy Rigatoni
- It's a restaurant-quality meal made simple. This spicy rigatoni vodka is the perfect date night at home option. It has fairly easy prep, delivers a rich, special flavor, and all things considered doesn't create too many dishes that need washing (always a good thing).
- You control the heat. The spice level here is balanced so you can enjoy some heat while still tasting everything else.
- It uses both tomato paste and crushed tomatoes. Using two forms of tomato products not only adds necessary volume to the sauce to more-than-adequately coat a pound of pasta, but provides an extra nuance to the tomato flavor.
- Rigatoni: If unavailable, look for other shapes with ridges as they help the sauce cling onto the pasta. Penne is classic for vodka sauce. More specialty shapes, such as pipette ("little pipes") or lumache ("snails") are fun, but much less common to find.
- Tomato Paste: Pictured above is frozen tomato paste. Freezing leftover portions makes it so easy to have on hand, and it doesn't need to be thawed before adding to a recipe.
- Calabrian Chili Peppers: These are SPICY but bring flavor and fruity notes along with the heat. Look to find these in the grocery store aisle with the pickles and other jarred condiments.
- Crushed Tomatoes: Either plain or with added basil flavoring is great.
- Cream: Heavy cream has a minimum 36% milk fat. A lower-fat option such as regular whipping cream (30-36%) or half-and-half (11-12%) can be used, but this spicy rigatoni vodka won't have quite as luxurious of a feel. Do not substitute with milk -- even whole milk is only about 3%.
- Pecorino: Freshly grated Pecorino Romano is *chef's kiss* highly recommended for the best flavor. If I needed a shortcut here I would look for the refrigerated shredded/grated varieties found in the deli or specialty cheese case. Parmesan can be used in its place (though please don't use the shelf-stable, green-lidded canister).
- Sauté onion, then garlic. Cook the onion for 4-5 minutes until soft and golden, then add garlic for 1 minute.
- Add tomato paste and peppers. Stir everything around to break up the blobs while cooking for 2-3 minutes. Doing this before adding the liquid ingredients gives the tomato paste the chance to semi-caramelize for a deeper flavor.
- Pour in crushed tomatoes and vodka. Stir well.
- Simmer. Let everything simmer for 20-25 minutes to thicken up. Prepare a pot of water to boil and cook the rigatoni to al dente during this time.
- Add cream and Pecorino. Once the spicy vodka sauce has thickened, pour in the cream and sprinkle in the Pecorino. Stir until melted.
- Stir in pasta. Add the pasta and stir to coat completely. Add a splash or two of reserved pasta water, if desired, for a thinner or silkier sauce.
Tips and Tricks
- Use caution with the peppers... Calabrian chili peppers really pack a punch. I found one tablespoon to provide surprisingly solid heat for one pound of pasta. Free free to increase if you're a true spice aficionado.
- ...and the vodka. Adding vodka to a hot pan set over an open flame risks a flare up, so do use extra caution when cooking on a gas stove. This recipe mitigates this by not deglazing with vodka, rather pouring the crushed tomatoes into the pan first, then the vodka. If deglazing is needed, use a small amount of the crushed tomatoes or even a bit of water.
- Set your pasta timer. Check the package listed time for al dente for your particular brand and shape of pasta as it differs. Overcooked pasta will break apart and become mushy, so set a timer and carefully test the pasta to know for sure just as it's ready. It will soften up a bit more once finished in the sauce.
- Protein options. Pieces of grilled or otherwise cooked chicken would be the easiest protein to add to this spicy rigatoni vodka. But if you're really going for it, chopped up breaded chicken cutlet is extra good in a creamy pasta dish.
Frequently Asked Questions
Vodka doesn't really add its own very perceptible flavor, rather it acts as a behind the scenes flavor booster for the varying ingredients: the savory sweetness of the tomatoes, richness of the cream, and heat of the peppers. If you don't consume vodka you can omit it in this spicy rigatoni recipe. While it won't taste exactly the same, you'll still have an enjoyably spicy and creamy tomato sauce.
It's a common refrain but not 100% completely, no. The alcohol will reduce and cook off as the sauce simmers (using a pan with a large surface area and periodic stirring helps this process along), but a thirty-ish minute cook time is not long enough to guarantee it's totally, totally gone. Please use your judgment when and to whom you serve this dish.
While they won't have the more robust flavor of the Calabrian chilis, crushed red pepper flakes can be substituted for the Calabrian chilis in a pinch. Consider using 1 ½ teaspoons of crushed red pepper, which is my preferred amount in the sauce of another spicy pasta, smoked sausage fra diavolo. Add them at the same time you would have added the Calabrian chilis so the flavor of the dried pepper flakes can heat and bloom before adding the bulk of the liquid ingredients.
More Pasta Recipes
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Spicy Rigatoni Vodka
- 1 pound (454g) rigatoni
- 2 Tablespoons (30 ml) olive oil
- Half of a medium onion finely-diced
- 5 cloves garlic finely-minced or pressed
- 2 Tablespoons (33g) tomato paste
- 1 Tablespoon (15g) finely-chopped Calabrian chili peppers
- 1 28-ounce can (794g) crushed tomatoes
- ½ cup (125 ml) vodka
- ¾ cup (180 ml) heavy cream
- ½ cup (32g) finely-shredded Pecorino Romano or Parmesan more to serve
- Salt to taste
- Ground black pepper to taste
- Fresh basil chiffonade for serving
- Add olive oil to a large saucepan set over medium heat. Once heated, add onion and cook for 4-5 minutes, or until softened but not browned. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more.
- Add the tomato paste and chopped chili peppers. Cook for 2-3 minutes while stirring to evenly distribute everything.
- Pour in the crushed tomatoes, then the vodka. Stir well to combine.
- Bring the sauce to a simmer and partially cover the pan. Simmer for 20-25 minutes, stirring periodically, until it has thickened up.
- While the sauce is simmering, set a large pot of water on the stove to boil. Once boiling, generously salt the water and then add the rigatoni. Cook just to the al dente listed time on the package directions. Reserve ½ - ¾ cup of pasta water before draining.
- Once the sauce has finished simmering, reduce the heat to low and pour in the cream. Stir as it thickens further, 3-5 minutes. Stir in the grated Pecorino.
- Drain the pasta once al dente and add to the sauce. Stir to coat, adding a bit of the reserved pasta water as you like if you'd like a thinner or more silky sauce. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Serve with more grated Pecorino and with fresh basil chiffonade over top.
- Calabrian chili peppers: These will often be found near the pickles and jarred condiments. If unavailable, crushed red pepper flakes can be used in a pinch. Consider using 1 ½ teaspoons.
- Deglazing: If needed, use a small amount of the crushed tomatoes or some water. Using vodka for this purpose would risk a flare up when cooking over a gas stove.
- Storage: Store leftover portions in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to 4 days. Reheat over low heat on the stove, adding a tiny drizzle of milk or cream if it needs help becoming creamy again.
Nutritional information is provided as an estimate. As it can vary due to many factors (brands used, quantities, etc.), we cannot guarantee its accuracy.Food Safety and Nutrition Disclaimer