Ina Garten’s Pasta Alla Vecchia Bettola

Pasta Alla Vecchia Bettola

Most often, when I see recipes with quantity-ingredient combos such as one cup heavy cream, two sticks butter, a quarter pound cheese, I don’t give them a second look. It just never seems necessary — comfort food can succeed at comforting without heavy doses of heavy ingredients.

But after reading the preface to this pasta alla vecchia bettola recipe in The Barefoot Contessa’s Foolproof, I had to make it despite the cup of cream. More than being a mainstay on the menu of one of Ina’s favorite restaurants for 20 years, what struck me about the recipe was the method, which calls for sweating onions and garlic, reducing vodka, adding canned San Marzano tomatoes, and baking the mixture in a covered pan for one-and-a-half hours. The recipe originates from a restaurant in Florence, and Ina likens the dish to the classic penne alla vodka “but with so much more flavor.”

Few sauces that call for using canned tomatoes leave me satisfied the way this one has. About this time of year ever year, when the tomatoes begin disappearing from the farmstands, I start stocking up on canned tomatoes and preparing for a season of sauces that, while perfectly delicious, pale in comparison to the fresh sauces of summer. But this sauce has the potential to make this winter like no other. During the hour and a half in the oven, liquids reduce and flavors concentrate, and the resulting sweet-spicy mixture needs little more than a few splashes of cream and a handful of cheese to balance it out. Adding the full cup of cream makes for an incredibly delicious sauce, but it can hold its own with much less.

And while I haven’t experimented much yet, I could see using the base mixture — the puréed tomatoes and onions before the cream and cheese are added — as a component to so many dishes: thinned out with stock or water for soup; stirred into risotto; combined with other vegetables for baked pastas. This recipe is a little fussier than most of its kind, but the hands-on time is minimal, and the lengthy cooking time really transforms the canned tomatoes. And while a cup of cream seems excessive at first glance, the recipe yields a fair amount of sauce — at least five cups.

If you’re a penne alla vodka fan, this one’s for you. And I promise to pass no judgement if you use the full cup of cream. Go big. You won’t be disappointed you did.


First you sweat the onions and garlic for five minutes:
sweating the onions and garlic

After draining the San Marzano tomatoes…
draining the tomatoes

you squeeze them right into the pan:
adding the tomatoes

After 1.5 hours in the oven…
after 1.5 hours in the oven

into a blender or food processor it goes:
puréed tomatoes, onions, vodka


cooked pipettes

cream and Parmigiano

adding the cream



Pasta Alla Vecchia Bettola

Source: The Barefoot Contessa’s Foolproof
Yield = 5 cups

1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium (or a few small) Spanish onion(s), chopped to yield 2 1/2 cups
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (If you are sensitive to heat, just use a pinch and adjust at the end. The 1/2 teaspoon makes for a seriously spicy sauce.)
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano (optional — I didn’t use. I love dried oregano, but I don’t always love it in tomato sauce.)
1 cup vodka
2 (28-ounce) cans peeled plum tomatoes
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3/4 pound penne pasta or whatever shape you like
4 tablespoons fresh oregano (I used basil)
1/4 to 1 cup heavy cream
grated Parmigiano or Pecorino

1. Preheat oven to 375ºF.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large oven proof sauté pan over medium heat, add the onions and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes until translucent. Add the red pepper flakes and dried oregano (if using) and cook for 1 minute more. Add the vodka and continue cooking until the mixture is reduced by half, about 5 to 7 minutes more.

3. Meanwhile, drain the tomatoes through a sieve. (Save the strained juice. I stuck mine in the freezer. It can be used for future sauce-making days as well as for homemade bloody Mary mix, etc. Maybe you have more thoughts for repurposing this strained juice? Would love to hear.) Put on an apron and crush the tomatoes into the pan with your hands — careful hear…you might make a mess all over your oven. Add 2 teaspoons salt and a pinch of black pepper. Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid and place it in the oven for 1 1/2 hours.

4. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta al dente. (Note: Ina adds 2 tablespoons of kosher salt to her pasta water. I did this, too, and found it really seasons the pasta nicely. There is no need to save pasta cooking liquid in this recipe, but if there were, I think the 2 tablespoons would be a little too much — the reserved liquid would be too salty. Just something to keep in mind.) Drain and set aside.

5. Place the tomato mixture in a blender or food processor and purée in batches until the sauce is a smooth consistency. Place potholders or dishtowels around the handles of your pot to prevent burning your hands in the next step.(Note: I puréed a handful of basil with the sauce at this step and didn’t add anymore fresh herbs.) Return sauce to the pan.

6. Reheat the sauce, add 2 tablespoons fresh oregano (if using) and enough heavy cream to make the sauce a creamy consistency — start with a quarter cup; taste; add more as necessary. Add salt (if necessary) and pepper, to taste, and simmer for 10 minutes. Toss the pasta into the sauce and cook for 2 minutes more. Stir in a generous handful of grated cheese. Serve with an additional sprinkle of cheese and a sprinkle of fresh oregano (if using) on each plate.

Pasta Alla Vecchia Bettola


    • says

      The shape is pipette, but honestly, any shape would work well with this sauce. I am partial to these little shapes like orecchiette or campanelle or even gemelli or rotini, but honestly, this would be so good with spaghetti or angel hair, etc. Kiddos loved it; husband loved it; definitely a crowd pleaser!

  1. says

    Yes, I made this from her cookbook as well–ONE OF THE BEST Pasta Sauces I have had in a long time. Certainly, one of my favorite vodka sauces!!

  2. Lauren says

    Whoa, no joke, I just came across this while finishing leftovers of mine that I made the other night. I have the cookbook and just got around to making it about a month ago. I’ve made it like 3 times since. No lie. It’s so good and so easy! It’s one of my new favorites!

  3. says

    I am fond of Ina’s recipes. Never any wasted motion and always spot on with flavor and satiety! I haven’t tried Pasta Alla Vecchia Bettola, but with your irresistible post it will be on the dinner menu soon!

  4. Becky says

    Wonder if white wine – or another liquid could be subsituted for the vodka without sacrificing flavor? That’s an expensive dish if using 1 cup of vodka! Looks like a lovely version of a tomato soup if adding some chicken stock.

    • says

      I think white wine would work just fine. Next time I make the sauce I will try that…otherwise, I’ll be in for an expensive winter :) And yes re chicken stock and soup. Dying to make this into soup. Will report back when I do. Thanks for writing in!

    • Judy H says

      Hi Becky!
      Alexandra, I hope you don’t mind, but I wanted to make a suggestion –
      If I weren’t using vodka in this sauce, I’d opt for vermouth. It’s relatively inexpensive and keeps for a long time, too.

  5. says

    As someone who has never really been tempted by penne a la vodka or the sauce, this this sounds really delicious and appeals to me! — Love your description of flavors and complexity. Would love to try this! Especially with easily-sourced canned tomatoes, all winter long. A bright spot on the dinner table :) Thanks, Ali!

    • says

      Sophie, I have to admit, it is a dish that I am not often drawn to myself, but I do, often this of year, get cravings for it. This sauce is so versatile, too. I think you would approve :)

  6. says

    Before even consulting with each other, my mother and I had each decided that we’d make this recipe while I’m visiting this weekend. Looking forward to it!!

    • says

      And the results are in – we all agreed (several times over) this recipe is a keeper, and my mom said that she’d make it soon for her supper club, a pretty high honor. I love seeing recipes from cookbooks recreated online, especially since she had this one on her shelf but I’d never even known it was there. Thanks!

      • says

        Oh Katie, I am so happy to hear this! And so happy the sauce met your mother’s approval…I am constantly seeking the approval of mine :) I have been on an Ina kick recently. Made the mustard-roasted chicken recently. DElicious!

  7. Laurie F says

    Ali, can I ask a non-food question?! What kind of camera do you use? The photos on the blog are always magically beautiful and you do so much close up work…..I love to take pics in the garden and am going to invest in a new camera next year. I know a lot about photos is in the skills of the photographer but I also know that my little cheap digital is not doing the job! As usual, the recipe is inspirational! I’m going to try it with angel hair but that’s just because I’m an AH junkie! I’m also going to use basil because I’ve got to pick the last of it tonite before it freezes! It’s very brrry here right now! XO :)

    • says

      Hieee, I’m back from apple picking! Ok, I have been meaning to write up a page summarizing my basic camera tips, which are definitely basic, and as soon as I take a few pictures of my setup, I will do just that. In the meantime, I will share with you what I can think of off the top of my head: I use a Canon Rebel xt, which is about 6 years old now, and it has been great. It is the bottom of the bottom as far as SLR cameras go, but it is great.

      I shoot nearly everything on automatic — no flash — and I only shoot in natural light. I set up my board next to a window that gets the most sunlight without it being direct sunlight if that makes sense. And I generally shoot between 10am and 3pm depending on the time of year and also the type of day. If it is really overcast outside, I can take my board outside, but even in an overcast day, the light can be too harsh. In my house in Virginia, I had these great shades from IKEA that were very sheer, and I could pull them down all the way, and they would diffuse the light so nicely. I miss those shades, but I am slowly learning where to take photos in my current house.

      I do edit in Photoshop, too, but mostly simple things: making minor adjustments to increase contrast, and sharpening.

      If I think of anything else, I will report back. Hope that helps for now. Angel Hair is what my mother always made for us…sounds wonderful! Stay warm :)

      • Laurie F says

        Thanks so much for the information Ali! It’s a beautiful Fall here! I need to go to the store for something for dinner tonite so I’m browsing the blog…:) XO!

  8. DK says

    Oof. A recommendation: you should put the “meanwhile” roast tomatoes for 1.5 hours before, not after, sautéing the onions for those who fail at reading.

  9. Erin says

    This is one of my favorite recipes – I usually leave the liquid from the tomatoes in, cook the pasta a little less, and let it sit and soak up the extra liquid before serving. Can’t go wrong with extra tomato right?

    • says

      So awesome to hear this. I was wondering the same thing. I know the juice I saved won’t go to waste, but I’d rather not have to deal with it…too much to think about. Great tip on cooking pasta less and letting it soak up the sauce. Thanks!

  10. Rebekah says

    This looks amazing, but should I bother if I don’t use vodka? I’m afraid a substitute just wouldn’t be the same…

    • says

      I think you should. Honestly, I think white wine would be a fine substitute. The mixture bakes for so long and there are so many other flavors going on that I really don’t think subbing wine for vodka would make a huge difference. What were you thinking of using in place of the vodka?

  11. says

    I may never buy another jar of sauce ever again. And as a little fyi, you can also use the pureed sauce (before adding in the cream) on pizza. That’s what I did anyway and it worked beautifully.

    Loved how forgiving this sauce was. I had one can of whole tomatoes, one can of chunky diced, and one can of pureed. All three went into my pan, along with some of the juices. I used more of the juices to thin the sauce to my liking in the food processor.

    • says

      I know, right? I kind of wished I had just made it with all of the juices and not strained them out — definitely leaving them in next time…I had a feeling it would be forgiving. Now I know..thanks :)

      I’m thinking about using it in a baked penne dish. Thoughts on this? I don’t make baked pasta dishes that often, but I’m kind of craving one.

      • says

        I personally think the sauce would need to be looser for baked penne. I brought leftovers for lunch today and the sauce definitely thickened up once it had a chance to hang out with the pasta for a while…and that is even with adding in a good bit of pasta water after I introduced the pasta and the sauce in the pot.

        I dunno, maybe this is where you would really want to have the strained juices available to thin out your baked saucy goodness for an oven application.

        • says

          I think you’re right. I am noticing that the sauce I have left in the fridge is super thick. I am going to thin it out with those juices I have saved…I guess I am glad I saved them after all. I will report back. Thinking about making this for lunch tomorrow for my in-laws. My mother-in-law loves mushrooms. I’m going to wing it. Wish me luck!

  12. Trish says

    So, I broke the rule that says you shouldn’t try a new recipe for company. But since you had tested it I decided that was good enough for me! I am glad I did because I made it last night for friends and it turned out wonderfully! The only thing I did was to use a little less kosher salt in the tomatoes. So easy and so delicious! Thanks for sharing!

    • says

      Yay! So happy to hear this Trish. And I think I’ll probably start with less salt next time, too. I love salt but Ina has a seriously heavy salt hand — I think in the book it says to add an additional teaspoon of salt after the tomatoes are roasted…that would be serious overkill. Anyway, so happy you liked this! And thanks for your sweet comment on the giveaway… you didn’t have to take yourself out :)

      • trish says

        I made this again last night but this time for my husband. I only used 2 tablespoons of cream and it was still delicious!!! (Quite frankly, it is wonderful with no cream). I also made your apple galette from the Baking Steel website. Needless to say, my husband was thrilled with both. I had one small slice of the galette and he ate all of the rest of it–in one sitting!!

        • says

          Yay! So happy to hear this Trish. And it’s so nice to hear your confirmation re using less cream: I couldn’t agree more. And so great to hear that you made the apple galette, too. Isn’t the under crust so nice and crisp? So glad your husband approved. I’m working on the next Baking Steel post today: focaccia with grapes and rosemary. It’s so good! I think you’ll approve :)

  13. Judy H says

    This looks like another keeper!! We love Italian foods, and San Marzano tomatoes are the very best canned tomatoes! I even made a gazpacho with them once, and you can’t do that with just any canned tomato! :)
    Thank you for sharing! I’d love to try this over ravioli or even manicotti, but even plain pasta looks delicious with it!

  14. Judy H says

    I’m finally making this tonight!

    The menu:
    This lovely vodka sauce with Barilla Plus bowties and browned spicy turkey Italian sausage tossed together
    Steamed Normandy mix
    My version of garlic bread: fresh French bread toasted with a mix of garlic paste, olive oil, and Italian herbs spread on top
    Sendero Merlot by Concha y Toro – a relatively inexpensive merlot that begs to be paired with pasta and/or chocolate!

    I would love to try this with some spinach in the sauce, but I want to try it without it first. I think a fresh spinach salad would also be nice, but hubby wants Normandy mix. Next time!

    I’ll report back! :)

    • says

      Yum! Judy, your menu sounds absolutely divine! I love this vodka sauce this time of year. I’ve been making it every week. Your garlic bread sounds amazing. Thank you for the tip on the wine! I will look out for that one.

      And what is Normandy Mix? I am intrigued. I think I need to make it. Happy 2014!

      • Judy H says

        Normandy mix is just a blend of frozen vegetables – broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots. They’re pre-chopped and available in bags in the frozen vegetable section. Easy to steam and eat – sometimes with a little seasoning or lemon juice, sometimes plain.

        Happy 2014 to you, too!

  15. Judy H says

    This was a hit! Thanks!!
    We all enjoyed it! The Italian sausage went well with it, and the bowties were a good choice.

    Thank you for another wonderful dinner! :)

  16. Renee Craig says

    Question: After the sauce comes out of the oven and it has been pureed, can you reserve it in the fridge? Then heat up and do the rest of the directions with the cream for guests say, the next day?

  17. Marijke says

    Just wanted to let you know that almost everything I bookmark comes from your site and Food52. Thank you for sharing your recipes as well as those you like from other chefs/cooks. By the way, the photography is soooooo inspiring.

  18. says

    I love your pretty clear glass bowl with flowers! Is it old? ( I’m an antiques nut~ I am going to see my kids and they will LOVE your recipe! Last year I made them a bolognese sauce and they flipped for it..thank you!

  19. Julia says

    Question: After the sauce comes out of the oven and it has been pureed, can you reserve it in then freeze it? Then thaw and do the rest of the directions with the cream, etc?

  20. vidya says

    Loved the recipe . I was looking to make this sauce for the husband with gnocchi.He loved it. His comment .. la awesomesauce .
    I didn’t have vodka so I used some red cooking wine and that too also worked.

    Thanks a lot for this recipe….

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