Red Sauce America - Food, Culture, and Italian American Experience

Vodka Sauce Is Having A Moment

By on Monday, April 17th, 2023 at 4:53 pm | 3,235 views

Bon Appetit article on vodka sauce becoming trendy

Vodka sauce is suddenly trendy again. The creamy, sometimes spicy, pink-orange sauce is an Italian American classic. Ella Quittner at Bon Appétit takes a look at why this dish is suddenly popular.

Vodka sauce has always been one of my favorites, and as a kid growing up in the 1980s, it was always on the menu. I was surprised then when I started doing research on for “Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American,” to find that it was both a relatively new dish and one that didn’t have a clear origin.

There were a lot of rumors and debates over who invented it and where. It does seem like it was a popular dish served in nightclubs in Italy, especially in Bologna, a college town, in the 1970s. Vodka was just getting introduced to the Italian market, and what’s more disco than vodka sauce?

The Italian argument for vodka sauce pinpoints Dante’s, a club in Bologna as ground zero. It’s possible Dante’s was the first club in Italy to start serving the sauce with other clubs copying it. By the end of that decade, vodka sauce found its way to Rome where the wives of two American diplomats were working on a cookbook. Efrem Funghi Calingaert and Jacquelyn Days Serwer’s Pasta and Rice Italian Style includes two variations on vodka sauce. One is white and one is pink. Published in 1983, vodka sauce was by then well enshrined in the American zeitgeist.

vodka sauce on pasta in a yellow vintage pyrex bowl

Salon cited a Serious Eats article by J. Kenji López-Alt pointing to the rise of vodka sauce in the 1970s and 1980s. That part is true, and why I grew up eating it at every Italian restaurant in North Jersey.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, new Italian restaurants would often feature a version of the dish, and it was a favorite to report on New York Times restaurant reviews. This wasn’t such good luck for JOANNA, a restaurant that opened in Manhattan in 1981, with a poor review of the vodka sauce calling it “tasteless and overcooked.” Oops.

Meanwhile, Americans have claimed credit for creating the dish. The least credible claim was made by a Columbia grad student by the name of James Doty. Perhaps he did come up with a version in the 1980s as he claimed, but thats a few decades too late to be first.

Another somewhat strong claim has been made by chef Luigi Franzese who worked at Orsini’s restaurant in midtown Manhattan where the menu offered a penne alla Russia. This was a creamy tomato sauce with vodka, for sure, and absolutely a vodka sauce as we think of it today. Since then his family members have made a good case for his having been the original.

But Franzese wasn’t first. In fact, the earlier inventor owned a restaurant just a few blocks south of Orsini’s where Franzese cooked.

Vodka sauce was definitively invented in by Armando Mei for his midtown restaurant Fontana di Trevi, debuting on the menu in 1967. Mei called his penne alla vodka, as the dish most often known as in the United States. It was a combination off tomatoes, vodka, and cream. The article reporting on the dish cites Mei as having “broke with tradition,” indicating he was both the inventor and taking a risk in doing so.

Fontana di Trevi opened in midtown Manhattan in 1956. Mei commissioned a replica of the Trevi Fountain for the restaurant created the Roman Sculptor Marras. It was a well regarded restaurant even when it first opened.

Fontana di Trevi is now closed, but at one time it was the inspiration behind Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” at least that’s how the legend goes.

Armando Mei was also a war hero in Italy. The Italian government awarded him a silver metal for his work in the Roman resistance. He was even captured by the Germans and sentenced to death, liberated by American forces just in time.

Today, vodka is literally available in the grocery store. Jarred versions from famous restaurants can be found just about everywhere.