The Classic Pasta Dish People Always Order Off-Menu At Lidia Bastianich Restaurants

Chef Lidia Bastianich is synonymous with Italian-American cooking. She owns beloved Italian restaurants across several states, such as Becco in New York City and Lidia's Kansas City in Missouri. The menus are loaded with classic Italian and Italian-American dishes, which are worth differentiating — many of the Italian dishes folks in the U.S. love aren't served in Italy. In an April 2 post on X (formerly known as Twitter), Bastianich shared a popular pasta dish that customers order off-menu at her restaurants: penne rigate in vodka sauce, commonly called penne alla vodka.

Bastianich's menus serve typical Italian pasta dishes like bolognese, cacio e pepe, and manicotti, so some customers may be surprised not to find penne rigate alla vodka alongside them. Fortunately, the dish is fairly simple for chefs to make if that's what diners' hearts are set on. Penne alla vodka is an inviting, tomato-based dish, and its sauce differentiates itself from other tomato- or marinara-based toppings by including vodka and cream. These give the sauce a rose-y color and rich flavor. Penne rigate (ridged penne) is the classic pasta shape for this dish. (Also, if you're ever unsure what to pair with a sauce, Bastianich has a tip for picking the best dried pasta.)

Penne alla vodka is both Italian and American

Many different regions have claimed to be responsible for penne alla vodka. Regardless of whether it's Italian or American, though, this pasta dish is relatively new compared to Italy's hundreds (if not thousands) of years of pasta history. One of the prevailing claims to penne alla vodka comes from chef Luigi Franzese of Orsini Restaurant in New York City, who made a dish called "penne alla Russa" in the '80s which included vodka in the sauce. In Italy, it's widely believed that the dish originated in Bologna in the '70s. But even if penne alla vodka originated in Italy, that can't sever its strong ties to Italian-American restaurants. As Lidia Bastianich explained on X, "I have not found vodka sauce in any of the traditional Italian cookbooks, but it's a phenomenon in the States."

The sauce is such a phenomenon, in fact, that Bastianich's restaurants often receive requests for penne alla vodka, even if they don't have it on the menu. The reason for its popularity may be scientific in nature: The cream balances the tomato, and the vodka binds the emulsified ingredients together. The result is a straightforward pasta dish with an underlying luxurious taste.