Food & Drink

Scallops Over Penne with Vodka Sauce

Sweet seared shellfish contrast with a spirited tomato sauce

Photo: Courtesy of Pomodori Italian Eatery

“Boil your water with a good amount of salt,” says the chef Amanda Russ. “It should taste almost like the sea.” Russ cooks classic Italian dishes at her restaurant Pomodori on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and for the holidays, she nods to tradition with a comfort-food combination of seared scallops over pasta punched up with vodka sauce. “Don’t break out the top-shelf Chopin for this dish,” Russ says. Cheap vodka will do nicely.

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    • About ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

    • 1 cup red onion, diced small

    • 1 cup diced pancetta

    • Kosher salt

    • 1 tsp. dried thyme or 1 tbsp. fresh thyme

    • 1 cup cheap vodka

    • 56 oz. (2 28-oz cans) of canned whole, San Marzano tomatoes

    • 1 cup heavy cream

    • 1 lb. penne pasta

    • 18 diver scallops, preferably U10 or U12

    • Fresh basil, for garnish


  1. Heat a small amount of oil, about 1 tbsp., in a wide-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, and sweat onions and pancetta together. Add a pinch of kosher salt to help the onions release liquid, but keep in mind that the pancetta will supply its own salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft but not brown. Carefully add vodka (removing the pan from flame), and turn the heat up slightly to allow the liquid to reduce to half, about five minutes.

  2. In the meantime, empty tomatoes into a bowl and crush them a bit with your hands. Once the vodka has reduced, add tomatoes and bring to a simmer, allowing the tomatoes to cook for about 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally so the bottom won’t stick. Add heavy cream and simmer on low for another 5-10 minutes, stirring until the sauce becomes velvety and creamy.

  3. Boil water in a large Dutch oven with a good amount of salt. Once boiling, add pasta and cook until al dente, about 9 minutes. When the pasta is finished, reserve half a cup of the hot pasta water and drain the rest into a colander. And the pasta and the reserved water into the vodka sauce and toss until the pasta is coated.

  4. While pasta is cooking, heat a large pan to medium high with about 3 tbsp. of olive oil, or just enough to coat the bottom of the pan. Dry scallops with a paper towel, otherwise they will not achieve that beautiful sear. Working in batches and being sure to give each scallop a little room in the pan, add scallops to hot oil. Shake the pan a little to free them so you won’t have to scrape them off the bottom to flip. For medium, sauté about 2 minutes per side. If needed, add a little more olive oil to pan before starting the next batch and let it come to temperature before adding the scallops.

  5. Place pasta into six bowls and top each bowl with three scallops. Garnish with torn basil and serve hot with crusty bread.