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The Prince of Pasta
It's the ridges that make penne rigate so right

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Penne rigate takes center stage in recipes such as today's Penne Alla Vodka, where the sumptuous sauce settles in nicely among all those ridges.
There is pasta, and then there is penne rigate.

Sure, I love linguine's sexy twirl and conchiglie's ability to act like a hundred little bowls of sauce. Fusilli bucati, all squiggly and hollow like a phone cord with its wire removed, has its place in my pasta pantheon. But penne rigate is something else. Like macaroni, it hides a secret burst of sauce and flavor inside. Like linguine, it's got chew. And like all ridged pasta, it is streaked with grooves that hold just the right amount of sauce.

Do not confuse penne rigate with non-ridged penne lisce. Sauce slides right off those smooth quills. Ever had a baked ziti where you plucked apparently unsauced ziti from within the maelstrom? Then you know what rigati are for.

There's a key question to treat before you start cooking pots of penne rigate: whose penne? You can't very well make your own: Extruded pasta shapes are best made by churning factory machines or gifted pasta artisans. So at the store, these are the three penne rigate you should consider:

• Trader Joe's (Italy): It's not only the best, it's dirt-cheap at 69 cents a pound. Your nearest TJ's store may not be so near, but it's worth the trip to stock up on cheap pasta and grab a package of their chocolate-covered caramels, the best candy in the world.

• De Cecco (Italy): This is a reliable, firm and chewy pasta, but I've seen it going for as much as $3 and never much less than $2. So if price is a consideration you might go with . . .

• Ronzoni (USA): After a blind tasting, Cook's Illustrated gushed about this American brand, and I can't deny that it's delicious, if not quite as firm as the others. The box will say "mostaccioli rigati." The pasta pieces are thin and vary in length. How quaint.

Penne Alla Vodka spacer
Serves 4
3/4 pound penne rigate
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 pound pancetta, sliced thin and chopped
1/3 cup vodka
1 26-ounce jar marinara sauce
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano as garnish

1. Start a pot of salted water boiling. In a 12-inch skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. When it foams, add the pancetta and sauté for about 6 minutes or until slightly crisp. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the vodka. Cook for three minutes, stirring regularly. Add the marinara sauce and cream to the skillet.

2. Put the pasta into the pot of boiling water. Simmer the sauce, stirring occasionally and adding salt and pepper to taste, until the pasta is just barely al dente. Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet. Stir it together with the sauce for a minute or two, transfer to a hot bowl and serve with the grated Parmigiano. Wow.

Cook's Notes:
• Pancetta is unsmoked Italian-style bacon; it's available at many groceries and specialty markets.

• When my wife and I had some non-pork-oriented friends over, I made this recipe with diced white mushrooms instead of pancetta and conchiglie rigate shells instead of penne. It was almost as good, and I think wild mushrooms would have inflated our sentiment from mere elation to bliss.

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Even though it's been done to death, I was going to write yet another treatise on how to cook dried pasta. But thanks to the magic of the Web, you can go straight to Barilla's guide at I would add only: Never drain pasta without tasting it for texture.

Assuming you've mastered the pasta-cooking part, we move on to the next key question: What sauce is worthy of all those ridges?

The answer is easy. If penne rigate is the Bugatti of pasta, penne alla vodka is its autostrada. According to Pasquale Bruno, Jr., author of "The Ultimate Pasta Cookbook," penne alla vodka was invented at Dante, a restaurant in Bologna, Italy. I believe Bologna to be the epicenter from which shock waves of culinary goodness emanate, and I'd hate to second-guess someone named Pasquale on the subject of Italian food, but neither cream nor vodka is a traditional northern Italian ingredient. Bruno may be right about the origin of penne alla vodka, but the expanse of creamy pink sauce in the present-day version says "Italian-American" to me.

I first encountered this marvel at Pepe Verde, a tiny Italian take-out place in New York's Greenwich Village. Pepe serves pasta right: large quantities in big white bowls. The penne alla vodka arrived clabbered in a pink sauce with bits of meat. After one mouthful, I was a changed man. The vodka had added an evocative depth of flavor that even the triumvirate of tomato, cream and bacon couldn't achieve without assistance. I devoured the bowl of pasta and decided on the spot that even though I lived in a New York apartment with a kitchen the size of a gnat, I would make a batch at home. I needn't have worried. Penne alla vodka is a cinch to make. If you use a commercial red sauce, it's a snap. Am I really recommending you profane this sacred algorithm with a jar of premade sauce? Certainly, because you can find some commercial products that will do nicely, especially this time of year when every minute has somebody's name on it.

I use Five Brothers because I think it's better than any tomato sauce I've made at home with canned tomatoes. If you choose this brand, stick to the Marinara with Burgundy Wine variety; the others are no better than Classico or other brands.

The only thing wrong with this recipe is that once you've served it to your guests and thereby cemented your reputation as a kitchen wizard, you'll have to come up with something outrageous to top it next time you have the lucky folks over. Then again, who would complain about being served penne alla vodka a second time?

Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle freelance writer. His e-mail address is Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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