Borrowing Barefoot: Zoodles a la Vecchia Bettola

I have wanted to recreate the Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola from The Barefoot Contessa’s Foolproof for a really long time.There just never seemed to be enough time.But, when the weather in the Northeast took an unexpectedly chilly turn this week it seemed like the perfect time to curl up on the couch in an oversize sweater with a giant bowl pasta (or your favorite pasta substitute such as zoodles, if you’re gluten intolerant or watching your waist-line as the case may be).

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This recipe has been on the menu at Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton for more than 20 years. First of all, Nick & Toni’s is a phenomenon by itself for the pure fact that it has survived in East Hampton for over 20 years. Not many restaurants can successfully keep up with the seasonal way of life on the East End. Nick & Toni’s has survived because it’s classic cooking with a slightly fancy edge. You’re not going to get anything unrecognizable that’s come out of the blast chiller or made with molecular gastronomy techniques, but most of what they do would be out of reach for your average home-chef. Except, this sauce.

Literally every time we go to Nick & Toni’s, I say “tonight I'll try something new.” 1. Because it’s NOT a health-conscious dish and 2. Because I’d like to explore what else they have going on. I have yet to be successful. I ALWAYS get the penne (they have GF pasta). Ah well, it’s about a once a summer indulgence that I have yet to live without. It’s very very very good.

During the second season of Barefoot Contessa, Ina goes to Nick & Toni’s to meet with the then-chef and discover the secrets of divine Italian cooking. They make this Vecchia Bettola sauce, which is basically a vodka sauce that’s heavy on the cream. In thinking about how to recreate this recipe I wondered if going sans-vodka would make a big difference. The alcohol cooks out, right? You won’t even taste the difference. Wrong. Vodka sauce sans vodka is just another tomato sauce. While there is some red-pepper flake in this sauce, vodka is actually the main thing that makes this sauce spicy. When you eat it, you get a slight burn in your throat—a slightly more enjoyable burn than that time you were ripping shots at the Talkhouse/Grey Lady/Dorrian’s when you were twenty…two, yep twenty-two (oh wait, just me?).

The other thing I had to think about was the cream. I went for straight up coconut cream because aint no substitute for some good old-fashioned fat. (It’s healthier than fat from cream, I promise. Please forget that article you read sponsored by the American Heart Association about coconut fat I SWEAR to god). You might notice a subtle flavor in the background, but it won’t be coconut flavor. It just adds a silkiness that cuts some of that burn we talked about.

 Anyway you guys, this sauce is perfect. With all the fresh tomatoes and basil around right now, it’s a great time to make a huge batch of it and freeze it for the winter months. Or you can just use canned tomatoes like I did (and shockingly like Ina does). This sauce is less about the ingredients as it is about the technique. It takes a minute, y’all. The onions and garlic get sweated….the tomatoes get hand-squeezed and then roasted for an hour and a half. But I promise you, every bite will be worth it. The tomatoes get burned edges and a sort of jammy center. It puts the flavor on a totally different playing field from any other stove top sauce.

You can serve it as is with zoodles, with pasta, spaghetti squash, you name it. I’d even serve it over sweet potato chunks. If you want to get creative, you could add a little chicken broth and thin it out to use as a base for a soup or with a white fish for a complete meal. If you make it, please be sure to buy your own vodka so your mother doesn’t try to chop off your hand, k? (I speak only from experience, people). 

Seriously though, Penna Alla Vecchia Bettola says warm, spicy lovin’ and whoever you serve it to is going to love it.


What You’ll Need:

  •  ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 medium (or a few small) Spanish onion(s), chopped to yield 2½ cups
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1½ teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 cup vodka
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans peeled plum tomatoes
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 zucchini or whatever pasta substitute for 4 people
  • 4 tablespoons fresh basil
  • 1 cup coconut cream

What I Did:

  1. Preheat oven to 375.
  2. Chop the onions and garlic. Add the olive oil to an oven-safe skillet. Heat the pan to medium-high. When the oil is hot, add onions and garlic. Let “sweat,” or cook for about 5 minutes, until beginning to be translucent. Add oregano and red pepper flakes. Add vodka and allow to reduce by half—bring it to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for about 10 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, drain the sauce from the canned tomatoes. Using your hands crush the tomatoes in to the pan with the vodka and onion mixture. Roast the tomato mixture for 1.5 hours at 375 degrees.
  4. Place the tomato mixture in a blender or food processor and purée in batches until the sauce is a smooth consistency. BE SUPER CAREFUL. Hot liquids and blenders usually don’t play nicely together. Place potholders or dishtowels around the handles of your pot to prevent burning your hands in the next step. Puree in small batches and return each batch to the pan.
  5. Reheat the sauce, add 2 tablespoons fresh basil and enough coconut cream cream to make the sauce a creamy consistency — start with a quarter cup; taste; add more as necessary. Add salt (if necessary) and pepper, to taste, and simmer for 10 minutes. Toss the zoodles into the sauce warm sauce. No need to pre-cook. Curl up in a ball and turn on your fave season of The Real Housewives.
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