Chef Casey Wall tells Broadsheet that Capitano’s vodka pasta – which has been on the menu since the Carlton restaurant opened in 2018 – is its number-one seller. “We’re not a very big place, and we’ll serve 70 to 100 portions a night. Almost every table will order it.”
We had got in touch with Wall to see why he thought vodka pasta was having a moment, and to ponder the enduring appeal of the dish. “Vodka sauce was something I loved to eat as a kid ... I always got it. It’s really comforting, and I think that’s probably why it’s so popular,” Walls offered as a reason.
He then casually revealed that Capitano’s tortiglioni vodka sauce – perhaps controversially – isn’t actually made with any vodka. Boom! Mind blown.
“When we were doing our research, and tasting it, we didn’t think vodka added anything to the dish. It’s not like anyone drinks vodka because it tastes good; it’s kind of like a nothing spirit. I’m adamant that if you taste ours side by side [with a vodka-based sauce] pasta, ours will have a different depth, and you can’t taste the vodka [in the other] version,” Wall said.
It prompted us to dig a bit deeper.
Vodka pasta is a creamy tomato dish that came into popularity in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Its origins are uncertain – some food historians attribute penne alla vodka to a restaurant called Dante’s, in the northern Italian city of Bologna. Others credit an American for the recipe. There are also variations that suggest Russian origins.
Although the dish has been around for at least 40 years, it seems to be having a renaissance, popping up on menus at Italian eateries across Australia, from Da Orazio in Sydney to Wines of While in Perth. Wall told us vodka penne was a fixture of his childhood growing up in North Carolina, eating in Italian-American restaurants, and it was a dish you could find everywhere.
At Da Orazio it’s made with nine ingredients: tomato passata, thickened cream, butter, chilli, eschalots, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano, vodka and rigatoni (but it could be any pasta shape – vodka pasta can be eaten with whatever you want).
The recipe starts with a sofrito of eschalots and chilli, cooked in plenty of butter until soft and golden. About four shots of vodka are added and – this is the dangerous part – the pan is tilted to catch the flame from the gas hob. Once the vodka is mostly cooked off (but not all), the heat is extinguished, and passata and then cream are added. But that’s not how Wall does it.
Wall hadn’t made it in a commercial kitchen until he did at Capitano. “So, I was just working backwards from a flavour profile I had in my mind then breaking down how we could intensify each layer of the sauce … Ours is a combination of three different sauces we use to build depth of flavour to this seemingly simple dish.”
Capitano’s version is far from simple, and the combination of sauces is how he can replicate the chilli-spiked recipe and its rich creamy taste. “We start with a lightly cooked, seasoned tomato base, and we have a compound butter we use to emulsify the sauce, and an onion cream we use to build everything together. We slow [the cooking] down, which adds depth to the dish, giving a good umami foundation that balances the sweetness, cream and butter.”
Some people reckon vodka helps the cream meld with the tomato base, making the sauce a cohesive texture, but if, like Wall, you’re getting that flavour another way, adding the spirit might be unnecessary.
Asked what the spirit adds to the dish, he is very certain. “Honestly, nothing. Maybe the flamed vodka could potentially bring something aromatic to the dish, but we just felt it did nothing to justify the addition.”
Wall was replying to our email via his phone from a camp spot on a mountain in Boulder, Colorado. He was answering a couple follow-up questions we had asked, including what he might say to someone who thought it was contentious to not have vodka in your as-advertised vodka pasta dish. “Ha! [I’d say] worry about something actually controversial. Or do some experimenting themselves and figure out it isn’t necessary,” he wrote, followed by a smiley face emoji.
“I love the dish and I am just grateful I have an opportunity to cook a dish that I enjoy eating for so many people here in Melbourne.”