Knowing what I know now about Dan’s eating habits and my compulsion to try every item on any given menu, it’s almost laughable that we both chose the same thing for our first meal together. But penne vodka was the fated accompaniment to our first face-to-face conversation after six months of emails that turned into IM chats that turned into phone calls that turned into one drunken purchase of a plane ticket to New Jersey.
He was a sports copyeditor at a newspaper in New Jersey; I was a journalism grad student in Chicago. Fumbling for sources on an assignment, I posted questions online, praying for a few quotable responses and insight from the collective wisdom of the web. Dan was one of the four people who responded.
Unfailingly polite, he answered all my questions about writing habits with sincerity, and then threw in the killer line: “I intend to write for a long time, and to be able to look back on it the way Kerouac hoped to look back on his writing: ‘In my old age,’ he wrote, ‘I intend to collect all my work and reinsert my pantheon of uniform names, leave the long shelf full of books there, and die happy.’ ”
I looked at the Kerouac poster I kept taped above my desk for inspiration, glanced over to the orange-spined, dog-eared Penguin paperbacks stacked down the bookshelf. How could I not email him back?
Something started happening. I was convinced I was crazy. Only desperate, psychotic people spent their nights on Instant Messenger (*ding!*) with guys they had never met in person. Even if said guys were hilariously dry-witted writers who understood why Ed was an underrated television masterpiece and unapologetically loved to sing “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” in the car.
I started to sleuth. I forced a fellow classmate who had graduated a year after Dan to bring in her college yearbook so I could see who I was talking to… you know, just to know. He bought a cell phone for late phone calls that wouldn’t wake up the family; I found excuses to leave the bar early to make my nightly East Coast connection.
And then a few too many beers did the work of Cupid’s arrows once and for all. Click: impulse purchase, round-trip between Chicago and Newark, set to arrive on his doorstep in July. Even before I hugged Dan hello at Terminal A, before the first bite of penne dripping with tomatoes and cream, we’d both already admitted to ourselves that this undercurrent connecting us across five states and 1000 miles was something that could very well be It. The Real Thing.
That our tastebuds were in sync was just another sign from the universe that we’d made the right decision.
A few notes on the recipe:
Why vodka? The alcohol interacts with the acid in the tomatoes and brightens their flavor in a way that non-alcoholic liquids like chicken broth or water just can’t. Those two little tablespoons will keep the sauce from tasting thickly dull, giving it an extra pop and spark that regular marinara just doesn’t have.
And yes, you could replace the heavy cream in the recipe with light cream or even half and half, but the texture will be less smooth when using lower-fat substitutes. If you’re serving it to the one you love, give them the real thing.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 50 minutes
Makes 4 servings
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons vodka
- 1 cup (1/2 pint) heavy cream
- 1 16-ounce box penne
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt plus more to taste
- freshly ground black pepper to taste
- grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese, for serving
Heat the oil in a large (3- to 4-quart) saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook for just a minute, until the garlic is fragrant and on the verge of browning.
Stir in the tomatoes and bring the sauce to a simmer. Cook for about 10 minutes, then stir in the vodka and cream. Simmer for 30 minutes more until the sauce has thickened and reduced in volume by about a quarter.
While the sauce is simmering, fill a 6- to 8-quart stockpot with water and bring to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and stir in the pasta. Cook according to package directions until the pasta until al dente.
Drain the pasta and toss with a splash of olive oil to prevent sticking while you wait for the sauce to finish.
Season the vodka sauce with salt and pepper to taste, toss with the pasta, and top with luxurious handfuls of cheese before serving.