The penne alla vodka at Nino's is lifted by crab meat. The vodka will lift us.

Image: Clint Sosa

With no shortage of quality lounges, bars, and pubs offering happy hours, Houston presents the spirit enthusiast with plenty of opportunities to “drink your dinner.” But what of the reverse? Where can you “eat your cocktail?” 

Alcohol-inflected entrees exist, though require more work to find, especially if you’re looking for something classier than beer-battered fish and Jell-O shots. Thank God for the Italians, who despite being known more as wine aficionados, managed to invent a sauce made with vodka to dress their penne (vodka helps emulsify the sauce, so hey, whatever works). Iterations of this dish utilizing different noodles shapes and proteins proliferated among Italian communities in the United States, including here in Houston, where a number of restaurants serve pasta with the potential to get you plastered. 

For standard penne alla vodka with a twist (the addition of crustaceans), head to Nino’s, which offers its tubular pasta in tomato-vodka-cream sauce dressed with crab meat. In another turn from tradition, Sorrento Ristorante Italiano swaps the penne for torchetti, relaxed spiral noodles whose thick texture and inner folds have a terrific way of trapping the vodka sauce. The addition of peppery sausage renders this primi a spicy wake-up call for the taste buds.

Ragu & Pesto affords its customers the opportunity to pair their pasta of choice with a number of different sauces, including their own unique version of vodka sauce that utilizes bacon and onion to impart smoky, porcine flavors to the otherwise mild tomato cream sauce. 

At Grotto on Westheimer, four-cheese ravioli form the carbohydrate base for an unctuous sugo rosa touched with vodka. The intersection of the rich dairy fat of the pasta pillows and the basil, tomato, and garlic notes of gravy engender umami flavors that rival the alcohol with regards to their addictive properties. Finally, Prego serves a similarly hearty ravioli alla vodka, which eschews animal protein in favor of mushrooms, thereby demonstrating that good fungi are fungible for meat any day.

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