This recipe is a reworking of Ina Garten’s Penne ala Vecchia Bettola that appears in her book, Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes you can Trust. The key step in Ina’s recipe is roasting the sauce in the oven for an hour and a half prior to finishing. This concentrates the sauce and gently caramelizes it. Ina’s recipe also calls for vodka. The alcohol in the vodka extracts flavors from the ingredients that otherwise would be masked – alcohol is an essential ingredient that cannot be omitted.
Vodka, however, is a neutral spirit that adds little flavor of its own to the sauce. That is why our recipe calls for Grappa – a clear brandy distilled from the grape pomace – the leftovers of the winemaking process. We reason is that because Vecchia Bettola originated in Tuscany the sauce begs for the added flavors of the vineyard that Grappa provides. Now, if you don’t have access to a fine Grappa like ours, go ahead and substitute an unflavored vodka in the recipe if you must. We also add a bay leaf for the savory undertone it provides to this sauce.
A few notes before starting. This recipe makes enough sauce for two pounds of penne pasta. Feel free to freeze half of the sauce for another meal. I would do this before adding the cream Also, the recipe calls for adding the pasta into the sauce for finishing. Add a little of the pasta water as you’re doing this. It will help thicken the sauce and add a silky texture to the end result.
This is a richly flavored sauce with just a touch of heat from the pepper. The cream and cheese help to offset wine tannins, so think of pairing with a full-bodied red like our Telos blend or Cabernet Sauvignon.
For the sauce base:
- ½ C olive oil
- 1 red onion – chopped
- 3 cloves garlic – diced
- 1 red Fresno chili – chopped and seeded (or a teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes)
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 C Sidewinder Grappa
- 2 28oz cans peeled whole plum tomatoes
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 C heavy cream
- 1 C grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 375. In a Dutch oven or ovenproof lidded saucepan, heat the olive oil and then sauté the onions over medium heat until they begin to sweat. Add the garlic, chili pepper, bay leaf and oregano and cook for a few more minutes. Add the Grappa and continue cooking until the liquid is reduced by half. Now add the tomatoes to the sauce, crushing them as you add them. Stir until well mixed, put on the lid, and place the pan into the oven for an hour and a half.
At the end of the cooking time, remove the pan from the oven and let cool for a bit. When cool enough to handle safely, remove the bay leaf and transfer the sauce to a blender. Blend until smooth. Return the blended sauce to the pan and reheat under a low flame. Add the cream and stir occasionally to avoid scorching.
Meanwhile, make the pasta in a separate pot according to the package directions. When the pasta is almost done, drain and return the pasta to the sauce pot to finish cooking. Add a splash of pasta water if the sauce seems too thick. Stir the pasta and add the cheese. Continue stirring until the cheese is integrated into the pasta. Serve with a sprinkling of fresh oregano (optional).
A final reminder – to get the maximum flavor, finish the pasta in the sauce.