Why Penne Alla Vodka Is Called 'Disco Pasta'

It may seem like penne alla vodka is more popular than ever in modern times, but pasta coated in silky, spicy vodka sauce is actually a decades-old recipe. Though no one can quite pinpoint who first created it or, indeed, where its birth took place, there are several theories that claim penne alla vodka hails from either Italy (either in Rome or Bologna) or in New York in the 1970s or '80s. Still, others claim their families have been making and serving the dish since the 1950s.

Perhaps the most colorful story suggests that penne alla vodka was popularized in nightclubs, after which it gained the nickname of "disco pasta." Those who say that the dish originated in Bologna say it gained traction at Dante's, a club in the region that was patronized by college students throughout the 1970s. As a result, other Italian clubs started to serve plates of the pasta, eaten to the rhythm of Gloria Gaynor and ABBA tunes. Pro chef Giada de Laurentiis also likes the "disco pasta" story, but she states that penne alla vodka was made a nightclub star in the '80s, as the chef tells it in a TikTok video.

Yes, food was once served at nightclubs

Having sit-down meals at a night or dance club today is an unusual concept, but in the 1920s, a night out often consisted of going to a location that offered dinner, drinks, live music, and dancing all in one. These establishments were commonly known as supper clubs. With the rise of disco clubs in the '70s, more people considered dancing the main priority when spending an evening out, and by the '80s, supper clubs had largely disappeared in lieu of cocktail-slinging nightclubs. Today, most people know to eat before patronizing such places, because it's not very likely that you'll find a plate of pasta at a crowded dance club.

Even though serving dinner at night clubs was once a common practice, it's still curious as to why penne alla vodka was a popular choice, as saucy pasta isn't exactly a quick and neat meal. The obvious theory is that there's alcohol in the sauce itself, making it appropriate to serve at a place that already goes through gallons of drinks nightly. Or perhaps it was because the pasta offered plenty of energizing carbohydrates, making it easier for guests to boogie down until the wee hours of the morning.

Make your own disco pasta

Penne alla vodka is a fairly easy dish to make, especially if you aren't trying to cook it in a nightclub. With minimal ingredients and a brief cooking time, "disco pasta" can easily be incorporated into your weekly meal rotation. Jarred vodka sauce is a helpful shortcut, and you can even track down New York restaurant Carbone's famous spicy vodka sauce on store shelves. Just boil some pasta — penne or otherwise — and combine it with the sauce, plus optional cheese and herbs. 

If you'd rather cook some groovy pasta from scratch, vodka sauce isn't too complicated to pull off. You'll just need to cook some aromatics before adding a good dose of concentrated tomato paste and deglazing the pan with vodka. Add enough cream to create the signature pink color and smooth texture of the sauce.

Once you incorporate your cooked pasta and a little pasta water into the sauce, you can see the dish take shape into its signature silky self, where every bit of pasta is coated with glorious creamy goodness. It's simple and comforting — ironically, the complete opposite of the feeling you'd get at a bustling, loud disco. Of course, if you take into account the party that happens on your tastebuds, the disco pasta name is still totally appropriate.