Dinner for Two: Lightened-Up Penne alla Vodka

Sometimes you just need a big bowl of cozy without all the messy guilt.

And when you do, this lightened-up penne alla vodka is ready and waiting.

The key with lightened-up recipes is to make smart swaps, not reinvent the whole dish. A penne alla vodka made with milk, no meat, and whole-wheat pasta would taste like garbage, so why bother? Manage your expectations and accept that a fattening dish will never be a salad (sorry), but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it in a lighter way. Make tweaks where you can, be thoughtful about your portions, and relax – Food’s too good to get stressed over.

To make this recipe a little bit skinny I substituted prosciutto for pancetta, half & half for cream, and used only a conservative smattering of cheese. Together these adjustments lighten things up without skimping on the traditional taste you love, or the amount of vodka!

Cooking is about being reasonable, not sober.

As you’ve come to expect from me – cue the broken record! – this recipe involves homemade sauce from scratch. Now I know sometimes I’ll “allow” exceptions to my red-sauce rule and say that you could buy jarred sauce if you had to (like in a nuclear disaster). But this recipe is NOT one of those times. That’s because the sauce is the whole point of the recipe, so it cannot be skipped.

You start by crisping two slices of prosciutto in olive oil, then sautéing a thinly sliced shallot in the same pan. Doing so adds an extra dimension of fat and flavor that’s super savory + luscious, the smell alone will sell you. Once the shallots are lightly caramelized add the tomatoes, seasonings, and sugar to the pan, then let everything simmer. In general the longer your sauce cooks the greater the flavor will be, so use the timeline here as a guideline – If you have more time, use it! The resulting taste will thank you.

After the sauce is simmered and smashed stir the crisped prosciutto back in, then incorporate the vodka and half & half. For the vodka use something high quality (I’m a Kettle One girl myself), and don’t worry if the half & half slightly separates while incorporating — This is natural, so stress not. And once your sauce is bubbling its way to perfection, you’re basically finished!

Boil up some penne, toss it in the sauce, then plate with extra prosciutto and cheese.

What’s great about this recipe is that you’d never guess it’s a skinny version of the real thing. The sauce is creamy and robust, the prosciutto adds incredible smokiness + texture, and a touch of sharp cheese brings it home. This is perfect for at-home date nights, eating for one two-nights-in-a-row (I’ve done this), OR scaling to feed a crowd!

Simply double or triple the recipe to fit your family & friend needs. xo

Lightened-Up Penne alla Vodka


  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 oz sliced prosciutto
  • 1 shallot, sliced thin lengthwise
  • 28 oz can crushed or peeled tomatoes
  • 1 1/4 tsp basil
  • 1 1/4 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp crushed or minced garlic
  • several dashes salt
  • a few pinches black pepper
  • a few pinches of sugar
  • 8 oz penne pasta
  • 1/4 cup high-quality vodka (I used Kettle One)
  • 1/2 cup half & half
  • 1/3 cup grated sharp cheese (parmesan or pecorino is great!)
  • fresh basil to garnish


  1. In a large skillet heat the olive oil over a medium-high flame, then add two slices of prosciutto. Cook until crisp and sizzling (about 5 minutes) turning occasionally with a fork. Once cooked, transfer to cutting board and roughly chop
  2. In the same skillet — don’t clean it! — add the sliced shallot and sauté until beginning to caramelize, about 5 minutes. Next add the tomatoes, basil, oregano, garlic, salt & pepper, and sugar, adjusting the seasonings as needed and mashing the tomatoes with a potato masher if using peeled tomatoes. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, occasionally stirring and mashing as appropriate. Lastly add the chopped prosciutto to the sauce, then continue to cover and simmer.
  3. Meanwhile, boil a large pot of salted water. Cook the penne according to package directions.
  4. As the pasta cooks, add the vodka and half & half to the sauce, incorporating well. Continue to let the sauce to simmer.
  5. Drain the cooked pasta and immediately transfer to the vodka sauce, stirring to coat. Plate with the remaining slices of prosciutto, sharp cheese, and fresh basil, then eat!