Cooking from the Bar Cart: Pasta Meets Limoncello

Classic Italian penne alla vodka gets a citrusy overhaul in this bright summer pasta

Photo: Blueline Creative Group

If it’s summertime and the livin’ is easy, the cooking should be too. I love finding new ways to use up backyard bumper crops or farmers’ market finds, like the sweet yellow bell peppers that beckoned from a bucket of scarlet ones on a recent trip. Their cheery hue made me think of lemons. And since ingredients from the liquor cabinet are often my secret weapons for fresh inspiration in the kitchen, that got me wondering how these little bells and limoncello, the citrusy-sweet Italian digestif, might mingle in an easy summer pasta dish. After all, a neutral spirit like vodka is the base for limoncello. So, just like that, the idea for this fresh riff on classic penne alla vodka was born. Whether you use vodka, wine, fortified wine, or limoncello, reducing a small amount of alcohol in a sauce as it simmers causes aroma molecules to be released, which boosts flavor. 

Traditional alla vodka recipes rely on tomatoes and cream, but this rendition mixes cream with a silky smooth yellow pepper coulis (a strained puree) instead. Limoncello amplifies the inherent sweetness in the peppers, while the cream rounds out any lingering pungency. The end result is a bright dish that tastes like summertime on a plate. Because the sauce is pureed, it’s main ingredient isn’t immediately obvious, and because it’s slightly sweet and yellow, serving it can be like a tasting game. Most guesses at my table were “sweet corn,” which I consider a compliment. This sauce does hint at the prized milk scraped from corn cobs. Serve this pasta as a side dish, or top it with grilled shrimp or chicken for a delicious supper.

See other recipes in our Cooking from the Bar Cart series.



  • Pasta al Limoncello (Yield: 6 servings)

    • 2 tbsp. olive oil

    • 1 tbsp. butter

    • 2 to 3 small yellow bell peppers, seeded and diced (about 1½ cups)

    • 1 small yellow onion, diced (about 1 cup)

    • Kosher salt

    • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

    • 2 garlic cloves, minced

    • 1 cup chicken stock

    • ⅓ cup limoncello

    • Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

    • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh oregano

    • ½ cup heavy cream

    • 1 lb. spinach egg noodles

    • 1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

    • Fresh basil or oregano leaves

    • Freshly ground black pepper


  1. Heat the oil and butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. When the butter melts, add the bell peppers, onion, a generous pinch of salt, and the red pepper flakes. Sweat the vegetables for 5 minutes until softened, but not browned; adjust the heat as needed. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more. 

  2. Remove the pan from the heat and add the chicken stock and limoncello. Return the pan to the stove over medium heat and simmer until the the liquid is reduced by half, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. 

  3. Remove the pan from the heat. Transfer the mixture to a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Pour the puree through a mesh strainer, pressing with a wooden spoon, back into the saucepan. Stir in the lemon zest, lemon juice, oregano, and cream. Return the pan to the stove over low heat and cook at a bare simmer for 3 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Set aside and keep warm.

  4. Cook the pasta al dente, according to the package directions, reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking water before draining. Drain. Add the cooked pasta to the saucepan with the sauce and a splash of the reserved cooking water. Toss to coat evenly over low heat for 1 minute. Add the grated cheese and mix well. If the sauce is too thick, thin with a bit more reserved pasta water. 

  5. Serve the pasta in shallow bowls. Garnish with torn oregano or basil leaves, freshly ground black pepper, and more grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Katherine Cobbs is a cookbook author and editor. Her recent books are Pantry Cocktails (2021), Tequila & Tacos (2020), and Cookies & Cocktails (2019) published by Simon & Schuster. She also developed recipes for Garden & Gun’s The Southerner’s Cookbook – Recipes, Wisdom, and Stories.