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Homemade Vodka Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes

Homemade vodka sauce with fresh tomatoes styled in bowl with fresh basil.
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Homemade Vodka Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes is a delicious, summery take on the popular, creamy pasta dish. Using lots of fresh tomatoes and sweet basil gives it an extra-fresh taste and mouth-watering chunky texture. Plus, it’s a great way to use up extra tomatoes, whatever the type! (This recipe works with all fresh tomatoes, regardless of size, shape or color.) Read on for more!

Homemade vodka sauce with fresh tomatoes styled in bowl with fresh basil.

There are so many variations to pasta with vodka sauce.

  • Some are more like a cream sauce with a little tomato, whereas others are more like a tomato sauce with a little cream.
  • Some are clearly spicy with a healthy dose of peperoncino.
  • Many contain pancetta.
  • Some are made with tomato paste as the only tomato product.
  • Some have only a sprinkle of vodka and others contain lots of it, and sometimes white wine as well.

Three ingredients are consistent from recipe to recipe, however: tomatoes, cream and vodka.

This summery version is made with all the fresh garden tomatoes and basil! Regardless of size or shape, just cut them up and combine them with onions, garlic, vodka, a little dry white wine, heavy cream and pecorino cheese and you have yourself a delicious, chunky version that you are sure to embrace all year long!

Overhead view of homemade vodka sauce with fresh tomatoes in pan.

Vodka Sauce Origins

Are the origins of this popular, vodka-laced, creamy tomato sauce Italian-American or Italian? It’s unclear and the answer depends largely on who you talk to.

There have been multiple claims to the invention of the dish, and some popular theories about where this vodka and cream-laced tomato sauce came from include the following:

  • According to Pasquale Bruno Jr., author of The Ultimate Pasta Cookbook, penne alla vodka was invented in the 1970s at Dante, a restaurant in Bologna, Italy.
  • In 1974, an early version of it called pasta all’infuriata appeared in the Italian actor Ugo Tognazzi’s cookbook L’Abbuffone. His recipe was made with penne, fresh peeled tomatoes, a shot of vodka, chili pepper, oil, garlic and bay leaves.
  • The Williams Sonoma Essentials of Italian cookbook states that it was invented in the 1980s by a Roman chef for a vodka company that wanted to popularize its product in Italy.
  • In her book Food for Friends, Barbara Kafka writes the dish was common in Italy before becoming popular in America in the early 1980s.

Whatever the case or its true origins, there is no doubt that it has become firmly entrenched as an Italian-American classic across most of the US. And, let’s face it … IT. IS. GOOD. For more on the topic, click here.

Side view of homemade vodka sauce with fresh tomatoes styled in bowl with fresh basil.

Why You Will Love This Recipe

  • So Delicious! The chunky, fresh tomatoes and abundant basil are a nice twist on the traditional recipe and seem to make a rich dish seem light somehow! Plus, they add great, overall texture.
  • Meal Planning: The vodka sauce can be made up to five days in advance and held in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Just reheat when ready to use.
  • Perfect for Any Occasion! Everybody loves a creamy and decadent pasta sauce. This recipe works for a simple weeknight meal or a weekend dinner party.

Let’s face it–there’s not much that is more cozy and comforting than a big bowl of creamy pasta! Eating this luxurious pasta with vodka sauce is like a big hug from Mom. And Grandmom. And who doesn’t love a big hug?

All ingredients for homemade vodka sauce with fresh tomatoes.

Ingredients for Homemade Vodka Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes

To make this pink vodka sauce recipe, we will be using the following ingredients::

  • Fresh Tomatoes: Use any fresh tomato in this sauce, regardless of size, shape or color, even fresh cherry tomatoes! This recipe was created with a home garden’s tomato bounty in mind, which is usually comprised of all different types of tomatoes. I used a combination of plum tomatoes and larger slicing tomatoes, which may not seem ideal for tomato sauce but that worked beautifully. The only real wild card is how long you will have to simmer the sauce once you add the diced fresh tomatoes (and all their juice). If you used larger, slicing tomatoes that are very juicy with a lot of pulp, the sauce will take longer to reduce to the right consistency. Some people may prefer to remove all the seeds and pulp and not add them to the pan. You can definitely do this if you want. I prefer to get as much flavor as possible out of the fresh tomatoes, so I always use the whole fruit (except the core, of course!)
  • Vodka: You definitely don’t need to use your most expensive bottle of vodka in this recipe! While the vodka is there to bring out the depth of the other ingredients, it doesn’t add any flavor on its own. Check out the Frequently Asked Questions section below for more on this.
  • White Wine:  I always like to use white wine in my vodka sauce because it adds so much flavor to the finished dish. Use a dry wine that you would actually drink for the best flavor.
  • Heavy Cream: There is no way around it–this is a rich sauce and one of its signature ingredients is good ol’ heavy whipping cream! And, why not? It adds an incredible silkiness and mouth feel that are worth all the calories! (No body said that this was meant to be everyday food . . .)
  • Tomato Paste: This adds umami (savoriness) plus a richer tomato flavor to the overall dish.
  • Onions, Garlic and Basil: These are all important flavor builders in the recipe, that also contribute to the dish’s signature, chunky texture.
  • Pecorino Romano Cheese: The incredible sharpness of Pecorino is just what the sauce needs to round out its flavors.
  • Pasta: I used a fun, unusual shape here called penne a triangolo, but this recipe works really well with lots of different shapes, like penne rigate, rigatoni, ziti, cavatappi or anything that is firm enough to hold onto the chunky, creamy sauce.

A complete and detailed list of ingredients with amounts and instructions is in the recipe below.⁠

All ingredients for homemade vodka sauce with fresh tomatoes next to pan about to be started.

If you’re interested in a comforting soup version of pasta with vodka sauce, you can find a recipe for Penne alla Vodka Soup in my cookbook, SOUPified: Soups Inspired by Your Favorite Dishes.

Homemade Vodka Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes, Step-by-Step

Here are the main steps for how to make Homemade Vodka Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes:

  • Prep all ingredients according to specifications above. Put a large pot of water on to boil. ⁠
    • PRO-TIP: Use a large pot with 5 to 6 quarts water for 1 pound of pasta. Bring the water to a boil before adding the salt. Use 1½-2 Tbsp salt.

  • Heat the olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Then add the onions, fresh basil, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes to the pan. Cook until the onions have softened a bit.
    • PRO-TIP:  You can put a lid over the pan to help quicken this process, if desired.
Chopped tomatoes.
Onions, garlic, basil and red peppers flakes in pan with oil.

  • Add tomato paste and cook it for about 30 seconds. Then, add the vodka and white wine and stir to loosen and scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot.
    • PRO-TIP: *IMPORTANT*: If you are using a gas stove, I suggest (to be on the safe side) turning off the heat and taking your pan away from the stovetop before adding the vodka. If the alcohol in the vodka comes in contact with the flame at all, a flame will ignite. Once the vodka has been added, return the pan to the stovetop and turn the flame back on.
  • Add the tomatoes, salt and black pepper to the pan, increase the heat to medium, and stir well. Cook, uncovered, until this mixture has turned saucy and reduced by about half.
    • PRO-TIP: You may need to help the tomatoes along a bit by smashing them with a potato masher or fork.
Vodka being added to pan with onion mixture.
Overhead view of tomatoes in pan.
  • Once the tomatoes have reduced, stir in the cream and simmer, uncovered, for about 5 minutes or until the sauce has thickened a bit more.

  • Cook the pasta for 2 minutes less than the package directions, or about 2 minutes before you think it is al dente. Be sure to reserve at least 1 cup of the starchy pasta water.
    • PRO-TIP: For timing purposes, ideally, you will add the cream to the sauce and the pasta to the boiling water at the same time.)
Heavy cream being poured into pan.
Pasta being cooked.
  • Transfer the cooked pasta to the pan and toss well, allowing the pasta to finish cooking in the wonderful flavors of the sauce. Add pasta water if more moisture is needed. (You may not need to use any of it.)

  • Turn off heat, then mix in Pecorino, remaining ¾ cup fresh basil & an additional drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. That’s it!
    • PRO-TIP: Drizzle the finished dish with some high quality extra-virgin olive oil or, if you would prefer restaurant-style, with some butter for an additional hit of flavor, richness and silkiness.
Cooked pasta being added to sauce.
Basil and grated cheese added to pasta.

Check out my answer to How Much Salt Should You Add to Pasta Water?” here, as featured in Appetito’s online Italian Food and Drink Magazine. (Hint: I also mention it in the recipe below.)

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about this fresh tomato vodka sauce:

If vodka supposedly has no flavor, why do we use it?

Vodka actually has a scientific purpose in this recipe. Without getting into too much detail, here are the basics:
 
— The ethanol in the vodka releases flavors in the tomato that are normally inaccessible in water, without adding any additional flavor, such as wine would.
— It also acts as an emulsifier — normally, the acidity in the tomatoes would react with the oil in the cream and make it separate. The vodka helps to keep the sauce stable.
 
In short, the vodka is in the recipe to bring out the depth and flavor of the other ingredients and does not add any flavor of its own.

Can I make this recipe with canned tomatoes?

Yes, definitely. If fresh tomatoes are not available, substitute them with a can of whole tomatoes and hand crush them.

Why do we need the white wine if we are using vodka?

Although not traditional, I always like to use a little white wine in my vodka sauce because I think it adds so much flavor to the finished dish. Use a dry wine that you would actually drink for the best flavor.

Is all the alcohol burned off in vodka pasta sauce?

Most likely, yes. But, there still may be a very small amount remaining. As the sauce simmers, most of the alcohol in the vodka (and wine) evaporates. The longer the sauce simmers, the more alcohol will burn off, theoretically. There still may be a small amount left in the final dish. If the “alcohol” taste remains, that means that all of the alcohol has definitely not cooked off.

Are all vodka sauces spicy?

It seems like they are, right? But, traditionally, no.
 
I’m not exactly sure when or why vodka sauces became mostly spicy versions. I believe a few prominent restaurants, such as Carbone and Parm in New York City, had a hand in doing this. I have no complaints though–I love some heat in my vodka sauce. Obviously, though, season to your own taste and leave all the crushed red pepper out if you’re not into it.

Side view of pasta on fork over bowl of Homemade vodka sauce with fresh tomatoes.

Try serving this recipe with Neapolitan Zucchini alla Scapece with Vinegar and Mint or Roasted Eggplant with Crispy Garlic and Herbs–both are delicious pairings!

Storage and Make Ahead Tips

This tomato blush sauce can be made up to five days in advance and held in an airtight container in the refrigerator until needed.

The sauce can also be frozen for up to three months. Defrost it in the refrigerator.

When reheating vodka sauce, either from the refrigerator or freezer, do not boil it, but rather simmer it until heated over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. This is to avoid the dairy breaking.

Leftover pasta with vodka sauce can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Reheat it, covered, in a small skillet over medium low heat with a little bit of water until heated through.

Italian Chili Oil being poured over Homemade vodka sauce with fresh tomatoes.

More Delicious Recipes with Fresh Tomatoes

If you love making recipes with fresh tomatoes, here are a few more recipes to try out:

Recipe Variations and Substitutions

Here are a few ideas to change up this fresh tomato basil vodka sauce recipe:

  • Add protein: Shrimp, crab, chicken or Italian sausage are all great in this dish for additional protein.
  • Add cured pork: Many vodka sauce recipes call for pancetta (i.e., Italian bacon). I didn’t include it in this recipe, but feel free to add ½ cup or so of chopped pancetta to the pan first at a low heat to render the fat and crisp it up. I would then remove the pancetta and add it back in at the end along with the pasta to maintain its crispiness
  • Change the cheese: The sharpness of Pecorino Romano really makes it the best cheese option for this dish. Having said this, if you only have grated parmesan cheese, use that as a substitute.
  • Add some veggies: A dark leafy green, such as baby spinach or arugula, is so good in this dish. Add it at the same time as the pasta. Or, try adding sun-dried tomatoes artichoke hearts for some additional flavor and texture.
  • Make it spicy! For all the hot heads out there, I suggest either increasing the amount of crushed red pepper or adding some Calabrian chile paste at the beginning of the cooking process (or both) for increased heat. And, of course, don’t forget to drizzle some homemade spicy pepper oil over the finished dish!
Homemade vodka sauce with fresh tomatoes styled in bowl with fresh basil.

For more creamy pasta sauces, check out Pasta Norcina with Sausage, Hay and Straw Pasta with Mushrooms and Peas and Mushroom Spinach Lasagna with Béchamel.

Kitchen Tools for Homemade Vodka Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes

To make this pink vodka sauce recipe, you’ll need the following:

More Italian Pasta Recipes to Try

I hope that you are enjoying my Italian food blog Mangia With Michele and all of my Italian recipes!

If you’ve tried Homemade Vodka Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes or any other recipe on the blog, please let me know how it went in the comments below. I love hearing from you!

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Homemade vodka sauce with fresh tomatoes styled in bowl with fresh basil.

Homemade Vodka Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes

Michele
Homemade Vodka Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes is a delicious, summery take on the popular, creamy pasta dish. Using lots of fresh tomatoes and sweet basil gives it an extra-fresh taste and mouth-watering chunky texture. Plus, it’s a great way to use up extra tomatoes, whatever the type!
5 from 8 votes
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Total Time 45 minutes
Course Main Course, Pasta
Cuisine Italian
Servings 6 servings

Ingredients
  

  • 4 Tbsp olive oil + more for drizzling at end
  • cups very thinly sliced yellow onion (about 1 medium onion)
  • 1 cup chopped fresh basil, divided
  • 2 Tbsp chopped garlic (about 4 cloves)
  • Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • ¾ cup vodka
  • ¼ cup dry white wine, such as Pinot Grigio
  • 1½-2 pounds fresh tomatoes, cored and diced (any tomatoes can be used. See Note.)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 pound pasta + salt for pasta water
  • ¾ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Instructions
 

  • Prep all ingredients according to specifications above. Put a large pot of water on to boil. ⁠
  • Heat the olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Then add the onions, ¼ cup basil, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes to the pan. Cook until the onions have softened a bit, about 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. You can put a lid over the pan to help quicken this process, if desired.
    4 Tbsp olive oil, 1½ cups very thinly sliced yellow onion, 1 cup chopped fresh basil,, 2 Tbsp chopped garlic, Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • Move onion mixture to one side of pot, then add tomato paste and cook it for about 30 seconds. Add the vodka and white wine and stir to loosen and scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot.
    *IMPORTANT NOTE*: If you are using a gas stove, I suggest (to be on the safe side) turning off the heat and taking your pan away from the stovetop before adding the vodka. If the alcohol in the vodka comes in contact with the flame at all, a flame will ignite. Once the vodka has been added, return the pan to the stovetop and turn the flame back on.
    ¼ cup tomato paste, ¾ cup vodka, ¼ cup dry white wine,
  • Add the tomatoes, salt and black pepper to the pan, increase the heat to medium, and stir well. Cook, uncovered, until this mixture has turned saucy and reduced by about half. This could take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes or so, depending on how large, juicy and/or meaty the tomatoes that you used are. You may need to help the tomatoes along a bit by smashing them with a potato masher or fork. Stir occasionally.
    1½-2 pounds fresh tomatoes,, 1 tsp salt, ½ tsp black pepper
  • Once the tomatoes have reduced, stir in the cream and simmer, uncovered, for about 5 minutes or until the sauce has thickened a bit more.
    1 cup heavy cream
  • When the water comes to a boil, add salt, then the pasta, stirring frequently. Cook the pasta for 2 minutes less than the package directions, or about 2 minutes before you think it is al dente. Be sure to reserve at least 1 cup of the starchy pasta water. (For timing purposes, ideally, you will add the cream to the sauce and the pasta to the boiling water at the same time.)
    1 pound pasta
  • Transfer the cooked pasta to the pan and toss well, allowing the pasta to finish cooking in the wonderful flavors of the sauce. Add pasta water if more moisture is needed. (You may not need to use any of it.)
  • Turn off heat, then mix in Pecorino, remaining ¾ cup basil & an additional drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Serve immediately. Buon Appetito!
    ¾ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Notes

  • Any fresh tomatoes can be used in this sauce, regardless of size, shape or color. This recipe was created with a home garden’s tomato bounty in mind, which is usually comprised of all different types of tomatoes. I used a combination of plum tomatoes and larger slicing tomatoes, which may not seem ideal for tomato sauce but that worked beautifully. The only real wild card is how long you will have to simmer the sauce once the diced fresh tomatoes (and all their juice) are added. If you used larger, slicing tomatoes that are very juicy with a lot of pulp, the sauce will take longer to reduce to the right consistency. Some people may prefer to remove all the seeds and pulp and not add them to the pan. You can definitely do this if you want. I prefer to get as much flavor as possible out of the fresh tomatoes, so I always use the whole fruit (except the core, of course!)
  • Use a large pot with 5 to 6 quarts water for 1 pound of pasta. Bring the water to a boil before adding the salt. Use 1½-2 Tbsp salt.
  • *IMPORTANT*: If you are using a gas stove, I suggest (to be on the safe side) turning off the heat and taking your pan away from the stovetop before adding the vodka. If the alcohol in the vodka comes in contact with the flame at all, a flame will ignite. Once the vodka has been added, return the pan to the stovetop and turn the flame back on.
  • Drizzle the finished dish with some high quality extra-virgin olive oil or, if you would prefer restaurant-style, with some butter for an additional hit of flavor, richness and silkiness.
 
Recipe by Mangia With Michele. Please visit my site for more great cooking inspiration!
If you try this recipe, please share a photo on INSTAGRAM or FACEBOOK and tag it @MangiaWithMichele and #MangiaWithMichele. I’d love to see it!
Keyword Homemade Vodka Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes, vodka sauce, pasta alla vodka, fresh tomato vodka sauce, homemade sauce, creamy vodka sauce, creamy tomato sauce, Pink sauce, Pink vodka sauce, Blush sauce
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!

13 thoughts on “Homemade Vodka Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes

  1. 5 stars
    My family loved this. It was an easy way to use up tomatoes and tasted so good!

  2. Why use canned tomato paste when I’m cooking with fresh tomatoes? I don’t understand that.

    1. Hi Dede. I include tomato paste in this recipe as it adds umami (savoriness) plus gives richer tomato flavor to the overall dish. You can leave it out if you prefer.

  3. 5 stars
    What a big hit!!! I used fresh from the farm tomatoes, basil, garlic n onions! Thanks to Lucky Crow Farms, cuz I’m no gardener. I used a Setaro pasta, nodi Marini – on hand. Gotta say it was fabulous!! I weeknight meal ,using stuff on hand … but what a special treat!!!

    1. So glad you enjoyed the recipe, Kathy! 🙂

  4. 5 stars
    This sauce was absolutely delicious! The only changes I made were to cook it down longer to thicken it up a little more, and I used a hand blender to blend it some. The flavors really melded and it made a wonderful combination of smooth and chunky sauce. Great recipe, thank you so much for sharing it!

    1. So glad that you made the recipe “your own”, Angela! Sounds like it turned out great. Thanks for your comment.

  5. 5 stars
    This was so easy and so delicious! Great way to use up some of the basil and tomatoes from my garden plus some previously store bought that were getting old-ish. It’s added to my recipe rotation!

    1. Happy that you enjoyed the recipe, Amy! Thanks for your comment. 🙂

  6. 5 stars
    This recipe is fantastic! I LOVE vodka penne and this recipe was not only easy, but made good use of the tomaotes and basil growing in my garden. Instead of the red pepper flakes, I used a dried cayenne pepper from my garden and it gave the perfect amount heat. And the house smells amazing….
    Thank you for sharing this recipe

    1. Wow-homegrown dried cayenne pepper! Impressive. Very happy that you enjoyed the recipe, Kristin! Thanks so much for your comment.

  7. 5 stars
    This was sooo delicious! And, I love that I could use any type of tomato i it.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the recipe, Maria!

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