It’s vodka pasta with a kick! This delicious spicy vodka pasta is made Carbone restaurant style, with Calabrian chili paste. Or omit the spice and enjoy as just great vodka sauce.

spicy rigatoni vodka in white bowl

Why you’ll love this spicy rigatoni pasta recipe

Pasta with spicy vodka sauce is having a moment, from Gigi Hadid’s viral TikTok version to copycat version of New York City’s Carbone restaurant. This is my version, which probably channels the Carbone version, as it makes use of Calabrian Chili paste (also having a moment :)

If you aren’t familiar with Calabrian chilis, they have a unique flavour, which is a bit smokey and sweet, but with a fresh warmth.

Beyond the Calabrian chilis, I think you’ll love the combination of both tomato paste and canned tomatoes makes for a more complex tomato sauce, which is still wonderfully rich in tomato flavour.

You’ll love that you can use the base recipe, but easily customize it to your taste, making it as spicy or as creamy as you like – from a little, too a lot. And it’s ready in just about 30 minutes!

Key Ingredients

Calabrian Chili Paste – this Italian chili paste has become quite popular lately, but it’s not always easy to find (unless you live in a larger city). You won’t find it at your grocery store generally, but it is relatively easy to find online. (Watch for ridiculous pricing at some online sources. It should be less than $10 a jar!)

It is available at places like Eataly, which is where my city-living sister picked it up for me :) or at Italian markets. The brand I have is “Crushed Calabrian Chili Pepper Paste/Spread” by TUTTOCALABRIA (pictured below in the step-by-step photos). Beyond adding to pasta, you can mix a bit into mayo and use it on sandwiches, for adding a bit to pizza sauce for pizza or try adding it to honey for a unique hot-honey to drizzle.

If you can’t get your hands on some, scroll down, where I offer up a good and easy Calabrian Chili Paste substitute.

Pasta – You can use any shape pasta you like or have on hand. I think a tube-shaped pasta, such as rigatoni or penne works well with this sauce, but I’ve also done linguini, which is also good.

Heavy Cream – aka whipping cream (35% b.f.). The recipe suggests heavy, whipping cream for this recipe, both for thickness and since it won’t split as easily in contact with the acidic tomatoes. A lighter cream can be used in a pinch, but won’t be as thick and may split/curdle a bit.

Tomato Paste – Use either the tube of double-contentrated tomato paste or the regular canned tomato paste. This recipe will use about 1/2 of a small tomato paste can. You can freeze the left-over tomato paste (be sure to label it with what it is and the amount), to use the next time you make this recipe! There really isn’t a great substitute for tomato paste, as it is responsible for the rich tomato flavour and texture of this sauce. I wouldn’t recommend tomato sauce, as it would be a pale substitute.

Canned Tomatoes – Note that the recipe calls for a smaller 14oz of canned tomatoes. The smaller whole canned tomatoes are quite easy to find (I love the Mutti whole canned San Marzanos, which comes in the smaller can size). If you only have the larger 28oz can, only use 1/2 of the can (or about 3 whole, canned tomatoes) and save/freeze the remainder for another time.

Vodka – and last, but not least, you’ll need a bit of vodka. Use what you have or enjoy drinking. I won’t suggest a substitute here, as there really isn’t a suitable one. If you like the sound of the sauce, but have no vodka, simply omit it. It won’t be a vodka sauce, but it will still be a nice tomato sauce.

How to make Spicy Vodka Pasta: Step-by-Step

This is a summary of the steps to make this pasta. Always refer to the complete instructions in the Recipe Card below when making the recipe.

photo collage of steps to make spicy vodka pasta 1

  1. Start a large pot of water to boil, for the pasta.
  2. Gather your ingredients. Photo shows the brand of Calabrian Chili Paste I used here.
  3. Meanwhile, melt butter in a skillet and add the onion. Stir to combine.
  4. Lower heat to low and loosely lay a sheet of foil over the onions. Allow to cook about 8-10 minutes. Our aim is to soften, but prevent browning.
  5. Remove foil and add the garlic. Cook briefly with the onions, until fragrant (do not allow the garlic to brown!).
  6. Add the Calabrian chili paste and tomato paste and cook over medium heat about 2 minutes, or until the tomato paste darkens a bit.
  7. When water is boiling for the pasta, generously salt the water and add the pasta.

photo collage of steps to make spicy vodka pasta 1

  1. When tomato paste is darkened, add canned tomatoes and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer, then lower heat to low and allow to gently simmer while the pasta is cooking.
  2. When pasta is near done, remove the sauce to a bowl or a blender (remove the top stopper to allow steam to escape and cover top with a tea towel), or use an immersion blender to puree the sauce.
  3. Return the pureed sauce to the skillet over medium heat and add the vodka. Allow the vodka to cook off in the sauce for about 2 minutes.
  4. Add the cooked pasta to the skillet and stir to combine.
  5. Add the basil and a drizzle of cream and finish with a bit of Parmesan.

Calabrian Chili Paste Substitute

I’ve often see Sriracha or Sambal Oelek suggested as a decent substitute for Calabrian Chili Paste, but I’m not really on board with either of those ideas. I’d be more inclined to just use dried red pepper flakes, for the easiest substitution.

If you want to try a bit of a DIY spicy paste, using just a few easy, common ingredients, you can give this a try. It doesn’t taste exactly like the Calabrian chili paste, which is difficult to duplicate without Calabrian chilis, but it will be a little more complex in flavour than just the red pepper flakes on their own. Don’t worry if you don’t exactly all the ingredients. Just mixing the oil, red pepper flakes, tomato paste and vinegar is fine.

1 tsp neutral oil or olive oil
1 1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes
1 tsp tomato paste
1/4 tsp lemon zest
1/8 tsp red wine vinegar
Tiny pinch of smoked paprika
Pinch of salt

Stir together and let stand 30-60 minutes before using or refrigerate until needed. This mix isn’t as spicy as the Calabrian, but the red pepper flakes will still be spicy, so add a little to start and go from there.

Cook’s Notes

Adjust the added cream to suit your taste. Personally, I find most vodka sauce recipes use too much cream, drowning out the lovely, rich tomato flavours and tipping the dish into the too rich category. I prefer a drizzle myself. That said, in your kitchen you can add as much as you like :)

Don’t forget the basic seasoning! Tomato sauce needs salt, so salt a bit as you go and taste at the end and add additional salt as needed, to bring together all the great flavours.

Not a spicy fan?

If you are not a spicy fan, no worries! The base of this recipe is my go-to vodka sauce recipe, which is pretty darned good with or without the spice. So skip the spice and enjoy a bowl of straight up vodka pasta instead.

spicy rigatoni vodka in white bowl

spicy rigatoni vodka in white bowl

Get the Recipe: Spicy Vodka Pasta

Vodka pasta with a kick! Adjust the spiciness and creaminess to suit your taste. You can also just omit the spicy part and enjoy a delicious vodka sauce pasta.
5 stars from 2 ratings
Prep Time: 10 mins
Cook Time: 20 mins
Total Time: 30 mins
Yield: 3 servings

Ingredients

  • 8 oz. rigatoni pasta, 1/2 lb.
  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup onion, finely diced and well packed
  • 2 large cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1-2 teaspoons Calabrian chili paste, or 1/4 tsp-1 tsp dried red pepper flakes *see Note 1 below for guidance and a homemade substitute
  • 1/3 cup tomato paste, canned or from a tube
  • 14 oz canned whole tomatoes, drained and hand crushed *see Note 2 below!
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 cup vodka

To finish sauce:

  • 2-3 Tablespoons fresh basil, chopped or 1 tsp dried basil
  • 2-4 Tablespoons heavy whipping cream, *see Note 3 below
  • 2-3 Tablespoons parmesan cheese
  • Pasta water, if needed, to loosen sauce
  • Additional salt, as needed

Instructions
 

  • Start a large pot of water to boil and measure out the pasta. Take a moment to open up the canned whole tomatoes and pour into a strainer set over a bowl, to drain off the excess liquid. Set aside.
  • In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and stir to combine. Reduce heat to low and loosely lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the onions. Allow to cook over low heat for 8-10 minutes. (The goal is to really soften the onion, but to not allow them to brown. The foil keeps the moisture in the pan, which will prevent browning).
  • When pasta water is boiling, generously salt the water and add the pasta. Cook until al dente.
  • Remove the foil and add the garlic to the pan. Increase the heat under the pan to medium. Cook the garlic, stirring about 30-45 seconds (don't let the garlic brown at all), the add the Calabrian chili paste and tomato paste to the skillet. Cook, stirring, about 2 minutes, or until the tomato paste darkens slightly. Hand crush the whole tomatoes you are draining, then add to the skillet. Stir to combine. Season with a generous pinch of salt and a bit of freshly ground pepper. Reduce heat to low and allow the sauce to continue heating until the pasta is ready.
  • When the pasta is almost ready, remove the sauce to a blender. Remove the top stopper from the blender to allow the steam to escape and cover the top with a tea towel before blending. Pulse or blend until smooth. Alternately, transfer sauce to a deep bowl and use am immersion blender to puree. Use a deep bowl and stand back a bit, as the hot sauce can splatter a bit.
  • Return the pureed sauce to the skillet, and heat briefly over medium heat. Add the vodka and stir in. Allow the vodka to cook off in the sauce for 1-2 minutes.
  • *Remove and reserve about 1 cup of the pasta water, to use in the sauce, if necessary. Add the cooked pasta to the sauce and stir to combine. Cook the pasta with the sauce for 1 minute, then add the basil, drizzle of cream and Parmesan. Stir to combine. *If necessary, you can add a splash of pasta cooking water, if the sauce gets too thick and you need to loosen. I don't often find it needs it. Taste sauce and add additional salt, as needed (I usually find I need to add salt to really bring all the great flavours together.)
  • Serve garnished with additional Parmesan cheese and chopped fresh basil.

Notes

1. When it comes to adding spiciness to a dish, it's always a good idea to start small and go from there. 1 tsp of Calabrian Chili Paste will produce a pleasant amount of spice, certainly enough to qualify it as a "spicy" pasta. 2 teaspoons will produce a definitely spicy, warm dish, but not a "pass the milk/my mouth is burning" level of heat. I can eat it with 2 tsp and I'm a bit of a spice lightweight. That said, the sweet spot for me (the spice lightweight) is probably in the 1 - 1 1/2 tsp range. Again, especially if you are unsure, start with a bit (1/2 tsp), taste and add more until you get to your preferred spice level.
If you don't have Calabrian Chili Paste, you can simply use dried red pepper flakes, or you can try the DIY chili paste recipe below.
Homemade Substitute for the Calabrian Chili Paste:
If you want to try a bit of a DIY spicy paste, using just a few easy, common ingredients, you can give this a try. It doesn't taste exactly like the Calabrian chili paste, which is difficult to duplicate without Calabrian chilis, but it will be a little more complex in flavour than just the red pepper flakes on their own. Don't worry if you don't exactly all the ingredients. Just mixing the oil, red pepper flakes, tomato paste and vinegar is fine.
1 tsp neutral oil or olive oil
1 1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes
1 tsp tomato paste
1/4 tsp lemon zest
1/8 tsp red wine vinegar
Tiny pinch of smoked paprika
Pinch of salt
Stir together and let stand 30-60 minutes before using or refrigerate until needed. This mix isn't as spicy as the Calabrian, but the red pepper flakes will still be spicy, so add a little to start and go from there.
2. Note that it is 14 oz and not the typical, large 28 oz can of tomatoes. Whole tomatoes are generally available in the smaller can size (Mutti makes a great one). If you only have 28 oz cans, just use 1/2 the can and freeze the rest. You can also freeze any left-over tomato paste.
3. The amount of cream you add is totally up to you. I prefer not too much, as I find too much cream drowns out the lovely tomato flavours we've built in our sauce and frankly, it's just too rich for me. I do a "drizzle" myself, which probably equals about 2 Tbsp. I suggest starting there. You can can always add more, if you like it creamier.
Cuisine: Italian
Course: Main Course
Author: Jennifer
Calories: 501kcal, Carbohydrates: 71g, Protein: 14g, Fat: 14g, Saturated Fat: 8g, Polyunsaturated Fat: 1g, Monounsaturated Fat: 3g, Trans Fat: 1g, Cholesterol: 36mg, Sodium: 549mg, Potassium: 776mg, Fiber: 5g, Sugar: 10g, Vitamin A: 1076IU, Vitamin C: 22mg, Calcium: 128mg, Iron: 3mg
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