Already have an account?
Get back to the
Food & Recipes

Spicy Rigatoni Vodka Recipe: Chef Calls This Easy Trick a “Game-Changer” for Extra Delicious Flavor

Here's the secret to a silky tomato cream sauce just like the restaurant version!

While we love pasta dishes like spicy rigatoni vodka because they’re rich and creamy, they can also cost a pretty penny at many Italian restaurants. The good news: Recreating this dish at home is so easy with the help of several pantry staples. It starts by cooking a sauce made with canned tomatoes, vodka, red pepper flakes and other ingredients until it’s thickened. Then, tossing in cooked rigatoni pasta before it’s all plated with grated Parmesan cheese and fresh herbs. And voilà! Spicy, luscious and hearty restaurant-style pasta without any hefty menu prices. This dish is perfect if you have time to slow down and make a cozy dinner as a treat to yourself. Keep reading to learn how to make this hearty and saucy pasta favorite!

What is spicy rigatoni vodka?

This dish is simply rigatoni pasta that’s coated in a spicy tomato cream sauce. Rigatoni is used because its ridges and holes hold in the sauce better than other pasta shapes. A New York Italian-American restaurant called Carbone is credited with popularizing the dish, which costs $34 on their menu. Luckily, you can save yourself a trip to the Big Apple and make this dish at home for a lot less! (Plus, warming up those leftovers is easy using our guide on how to reheat pasta.)

Why vodka is used in this dish

Vodka is a key ingredient in this dish because it’s an emulsifier, which means it holds all of the sauce’s ingredients together. It’s added while the sauce cooks so the alcohol can evaporate and leave behind a subtle sharp flavor. If you don’t have vodka on hand, you can substitute it with white wine or chicken broth to achieve a similar flavor and texture.

Chef’s secret to a velvety spicy rigatoni vodka dish

To help the sauce cling onto the rigatoni, it’s best to incorporate the leftover pasta cooking water into the dish. “The real game-changer is finishing the pasta in the sauce with a splash of the starchy pasta water,” Jessica Randhawa, owner and head chef at The Forked Spoon says. “This helps the sauce adhere to the rigatoni and thickens the sauce to just the right consistency.” Save about 1 cup of the cooking liquid before draining the pasta. Then, as you’re combining the rigatoni and sauce, pour in enough liquid until the dish reaches your desired consistency.

Related: Why Do Chefs Call Pasta Water ‘Liquid Gold’?

How to make spicy rigatoni vodka

Below, Maria Liberati, Gourmand World Award-winning author and podcast host of “The Maria Liberati Show”, shares her go-to Spicy Rigatoni Vodka recipe. In her recipe, an important step is allowing the onions to sauté for at least 45 minutes. This provides the sauce with hints of sweetness that balance the acidic tomatoes. You can also adjust the amount of chili pepper flakes for a milder or spicier rigatoni vodka dish.

Spicy Rigonti Vodka

Spicy rigatoni vodka in a pot


  • 28 oz. crushed San Marzano tomatoes
  • ¼ cup unsalted butter, separated
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • ½ cup water
  • 1½ Tbs. salt + extra
  • 3 Tbs. olive oil
  • 3 Tbs. red pepper flakes or Calabrian chili paste
  • 3 Tbs. vodka
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 lb. box of rigatoni pasta
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese + extra
  • Fresh chopped basil and/or parsley, for garnish


  • Yield: 8 servings
  1. Melt 1 Tbs. butter in saucepan over low heat. Add onion, water and pinch of salt. Cover and cook 45 to 60 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are very soft and translucent.
  2. In separate skillet, place crushed tomatoes, 1½ Tbs. salt, olive oil, chili flakes or paste, vodka, remaining 3 Tbs. butter and cream. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer 15 to 20 minutes.
  3. While sauce simmers, cook pasta according to package instructions until al dente (Italian for “to the tooth”). Reserve 1 cup pasta water before draining rigatoni.
  4. Add cooked onions to creamy tomato sauce base; stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking. Add cooked pasta to sauce with ½ cup Parmesan cheese and a generous splash of rigatoni liquid. Using tongs, toss mixture until pasta is fully coated in sauce. Add more pasta water or cheese if needed.
  5. Serve immediately with additional cheese and chopped herbs. Enjoy!

What to serve with spicy rigatoni vodka

Make this dish pasta night-perfect by serving it with a couple of different sides! Salad tossed in a zesty vinaigrette is refreshing and pairs well with the rich and peppery sauce. A carby side like this air fryer garlic bread is another tasty addition since it’s filling, buttery and pungent. Buon appetito!

Continue reading for more delicious pasta recipes and inspiration!

10 Pasta Casserole Recipes Perfect for Cozy Weeknight Suppers — So Easy + Delicious

Shiny, Black Noodles? Here’s What You Need To Know About Squid Ink Pasta

Oprah’s Personal Chef Makes Pasta Sauce From Oatmeal — Would You Eat It?

Use left and right arrow keys to navigate between menu items. Use right arrow key to move into submenus. Use escape to exit the menu. Use up and down arrow keys to explore. Use left arrow key to move back to the parent list.