This copycat version of Carbone's spicy rigatoni recipe is the real deal! With a silky smooth sauce, sweet buttery onions, and a bit of heat from Calabrian chilies, it's truly my *favorite* vodka sauce. Over the years, I've meticulously tested and streamlined the recipe so you can recreate this iconic dish effortlessly in the comfort of your own kitchen.
Have you ever tried Carbone's spicy rigatoni vodka? Years ago, when I was living in New York City, I remembered seeing the dish plastered all over Instagram. One after another, I scrolled through plates of glossy, creamy tomato sauce perfectly clinging to bites of rigatoni.
Eventually, my friend acquired a highly coveted reservation so we could try it for ourselves, and, boy, did it live up to the hype! The rigatoni pasta was freshly extruded and cooked until al dente. The sauce was as delicious as it looked, with a perfect balance between the acidity of the tomatoes, the cream, and the spicy Calabrian chili peppers.
Why You'll Love This Recipe
Now that I no longer live in the city, I challenged myself to create a copycat version of the dish, and I am honestly SO excited to share it with you!
- It's easy. I streamlined the original recipe for a faster, flavor-packed result using fewer ingredients.
- It's delicious. This is *truly* my favorite vodka sauce. It's glossy and spicy, with a bright orange sauce.
- It's impressive. This dish is easy enough for a casual weeknight meal, but tasty enough to impress a date, a friend, or your family!
In order to reverse engineer the recipe, I ordered the dish with the sauce on the side so I could really taste each ingredient. Online sources claimed to have the original Carbone recipe, revealing four key components:
- Onion Soubise: The sauce is remarkably smooth, with mild, visible onion pieces that add a savory note and sweet flavor.
- Spicy Tomato Sauce: The original recipe includes a "tomato compote" made by simmering crushed tomatoes with fresh garlic, basil, and olive oil. Calabrian chilis provide heat.
- Butter and Cream: These ingredients tame the spiciness of the sauce, providing a glossy finish.
- Pasta: Carbone makes freshly extruded rigatoni daily. The slight curvature and softer texture of the rigatoni creates a slightly chewier bite than a typical dried pasta.
My streamlined version: My version comes together in just about 40 minutes. I follow a similar process to the original onion soubise, because it's such an important textural and flavor component in the dish. Instead of using crushed tomatoes, I opt for tomato paste, which offers tons of depth with significantly less cooking time.
- Onion: Look for a sweeter onion, like a Spanish onion or Vidalia.
- Calabrian chili paste: You should be able to find the paste at your local grocery store, or online. You can also use whole peppers and finely chop them yourself. In a pinch, you can substitute ½ the amount of red pepper flakes but the sauce won't taste as vibrant.
- Vodka: Technically, this isn't present in Carbone's version, but it does elevate the flavor.
- Pasta: Freshly extruded pasta is a real treat, often available at Eataly or local pasta shop. Otherwise, dried is great too! Penne or rigatoni pasta is traditional, but any short pasta shape, like lumache, or pipette will work.
For a full list of ingredients and quantities, refer to the recipe card.
How to Make Carbone's Spicy Rigatoni
Step 1: Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, and cook pasta until al dente according to package instruction. Drain and reserve a cup of pasta water for later.
Step 2 - In a large skillet, melt 4 tablespoons of butter. Saute the onions over medium-low heat for 15 - 20 minutes until they're super soft and translucent.
Step 3 - Add the garlic and Calabrian chili paste to the onion mixture, and saute for a minute or two.
Step 4 - Saute the tomato paste over medium heat until the color deepens and caramelizes.
Step 5 - Deglaze the pan with vodka, scraping any browned bits from the sides and bottom of the pan. Add a cup of heavy cream, and simmer for a few minutes until the sauce thickens.
Step 6 - Once thickened, the sauce should be a vibrant orange color.
Step 7 - Stir in the pasta, parmesan cheese, and a little pasta water, and toss to combine. Cook for a minute or two until the sauce clings nicely to the pasta.
Step 8 - Divide amongst serving bowls, top with basil and enjoy!
Don't be afraid to let the cream sauce simmer and thicken! It's an essential step to ensuring a glossy, vibrant sauce.
Leftover cooked pasta can be stored in an airtight container for 2-3 days. Reheat in a saucepan with a splash of water to loosen up the sauce.
In a Serious Eats study, Kenji observed that adding a splash of vodka introduced a subtle heat and vibrancy that were absent in the same sauce without vodka.
If cooked properly you shouldn't be able to taste the alcoholic flavor of the vodka. Make sure to really let the vodka simmer until the smell dissipates before proceeding with the rest of the recipe.
For even more cozy recipes, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter.Happy eating! Love, Karishma
Carbone's Spicy Rigatoni Vodka Pasta (Copycat Recipe)
- 8 ounces dried short pasta, such as rigatoni, pipette, or lumache
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ½ medium Spanish onion, or another sweet onion | very finely diced
- 2 tablespoons water
- 3 medium garlic cloves, grated or finely minced
- 1 ½ teaspoons Calabrian chili paste, plus more if desired
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- ¼ cup vodka, or vegetable broth for a non-alcoholic version
- 1 cup heavy cream, room temperature
- ¼ cup loosely packed grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese, plus more for topping
- Fresh basil, for serving
- Cook pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook 8 ounces dried short pasta according to package instructions until just before al dente. Reserve 1 cup pasta water and drain pasta.
- Soften the onions: Meanwhile, in a large skillet, melt 4 tablespoons unsalted butter over medium-low heat. Add diced onion and saute for 10 minutes until onions are soft (but not brown) and translucent. Add 2 tablespoons water to deglaze the pan, and continue cooking for an additional 5 - 10 minutes until very soft. Season with a pinch of salt.Note: If the onions begin to brown at all, add a splash of water and lower the heat.
- Cook the remaining aromatics: Add grated garlic and 1 ½ teaspoons Calabrian chili paste, and saute for 1 minute.
- Cook tomato paste: Over medium heat, add ¼ cup tomato paste and cook down for about 2 - 3 minutes, stirring frequently until any remaining moisture evaporates from the puree. The paste should darken to brick-red and begin to stick to the sides of the pan.
- Deglaze with vodka: Stir in ¼ cup vodka (or vegetable broth) and simmer for 1 - 2 minutes, until most of the liquid evaporates and the smell dissipates.
- Simmer: Reduce the heat to medium-low, then stir in 1 cup heavy cream. Simmer for 5 - 8 minutes (or until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon and transforms for salmon pink to bright orange).
- Finish sauce: Season sauce with salt, and reduce heat to low. Stir ¼ cup loosely packed grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese and cooked pasta into sauce. Loosen the sauce with a few tablespoons of reserved pasta water, then reduce for 1 - 2 minutes until the sauce looks glossy and clings to the pasta. Taste and season again with salt and pepper as needed.
- Divide among serving bowls, and top with basil leaves and additional grated cheese if desired.