it’s all about the sauce: alla vecchia bettola

I have a weird habit. Some might say that I have more than just one, but I’m only going to tell you about one weird habit today.

When I’m at the gym working out on the elliptical machine (my favorite) or the stationery bike (my go-to machine if the elliptical machines are full), I read food magazines. And watch food and cooking shows. I’ve tried reading other things at the gym or watching the music video channels, an old movie, or even CNN. But nothing makes the time fly by faster while I’m huffing and puffing on that machine like a good Barefoot Contessa show or the latest issue of Food & Wine. Recently, I even caught an old PBS episode of Jacques Pepin and Julia Child making eggs. I had a fantastic workout that day and I learned a lot about cooking eggs, too.

A couple of weeks ago, I made it to the gym while the Barefoot Contessa was on, and a pasta sauce recipe caught my eye. The show featured a recipe from Joe Realmuto, the executive chef of East Hampton New York’s Nick and Toni’s, and was for the restaurant’s well-loved creamy tomato and vodka sauce. I love almost anything that Ina Garten makes, and knew that for her to feature this sauce on her show, it must be damn good.

pasta sauce

The recipe called for vodka, but since I had no vodka on hand (crazy, right?) and a pantry overflowing with wine, I used a great Chianti instead.  A good rule of thumb when it comes to cooking with wine is to only use a wine that you’d be happy drinking as well. The Setriolo 2005 Chianti Classico was very flavorful, juicy and medium-bodied – great for serving with the finished dish.

setriolo chianti classico

While penne pasta was the pasta of choice for Joe Realmuto’s sauce, I used gnocchi. I would imagine that any pasta that holds a creamy sauce well would work great.

I used D.O.P. certified San Marzano tomatoes, and I just can’t recommend them enough. I tend to use the Cento brand, and I can find them at my local Publix or Fresh Market.

cento san marzano tomatoes

pasta sauce

pasta sauce

The sauce was fabulous – rich and creamy. From the the photo of the finished dish (not the best photo, but I was having an off night) you can see that I’m a real sauce person. I get carried away sometimes and drown my pasta in it. But what can I say? I just love sauce. And I loved this one.

gnocchi alla vecchia bettola

Nick and Toni's Alla Vecchia Bettola


1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium Spanish onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, diced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 cup good red wine [I used a Chianti, but a Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon would work.]
2 (28-ounce) cans San Marzano peeled plum tomatoes [DOP certified, such as Cento.]
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3/4 pound penne pasta (or other pasta of your choice)
4 tablespoons fresh oregano
3/4 to 1 cup heavy cream
Grated Parmesan cheese


Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat the olive oil in a large oven proof saute pan over medium heat, add the onions and garlic, and cook for about 5 minutes until translucent. Add the red pepper flakes and dried oregano and cook for 1 minute more. Add the wine and continue cooking until the mixture is reduced by half.

Meanwhile, drain the tomatoes through a sieve and crush them into the pan with your hands. Add 2 teaspoons salt and a pinch of black pepper. Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid and place it in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Remove the pan from the oven and let cook for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta al dente. Drain and set aside.

Place the tomato mixture in a blender and puree in batches until the sauce is a smooth consistency. Return it to the pan.

Reheat the sauce, add 2 tablespoons of fresh oregano and enough heavy cream to make the sauce a creamy consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste, and simmer for 10 minutes. Toss the pasta into the sauce and cook for 2 minutes more. Stir in 1/2 cup Parmesan. Serve with an additional sprinkle of Parmesan and some fresh oregano on each plate.

(Just slightly adapted from Joe Realmuto's recipe featured on the Barefoot Contessa on Food Network, this episode.

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10 Responses to “it’s all about the sauce: alla vecchia bettola”

  1. 1
    Sherry — April 23, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    This sauce sounds delicious and am anxious to try it. Thank you.

  2. 2
    SMITH BITES — April 23, 2010 @ 9:59 am

    That was a great episode – Vodka sauce is to die for and I LOVE how you swapped out the vodka for Chianti! I’m filing that way for future reference – such a great tip!

  3. 3
    Maria at Fresh Eats — April 23, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    We might have been separated at birth — from our reading material at the gym, to our choice of recipes. Great, creative swaps and post!

  4. 4
    Dr. Bob — April 23, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    The pizza sauce you saw me messing with started as Cento San Marzano peeled tomatoes, as recommended by an article a friend shared on pizzas. Very simple: crush a few tomatoes by hand, add olive oil, minced garlic and chopped basil. Spread on pizza. Freshly milled black pepper. Cheese

    My pasta sauce is now, essentially, the same. I’ll add a bit of tomato paste to thicken and vary my seasoning with fresh basil, oregano and/or thyme, depending on the wine. Cooking time is 1-2 minutes. I’ve done some grated cheese variations, too. Chopped mushrooms are an obvious add-on.

    But, the point is, it’s ridiculously easy to go from scratch to a great red sauce in minutes.

    Sam’s Club sells a 6 pound can of Contadina peeled tomatoes for $3. tough to beat.

  5. 5
    Trissa — April 23, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

    I’m like you too! If I use the eliptical machine (at home, not at the gym) – I am usually watching the Food Channel. I call it multi tasking! And you get to learn a lot of pretty cool recipes too!

  6. 6
    Mauna — April 23, 2010 @ 7:26 pm

    Ever since James and I started making our own pasta sauce, we haven’t been able to go back to the jarred variety. I’m concerned about what will happen when he starts baking bread.

    BTW, I’m concerned about your lack of vodka. Keep an eye on the mail.

  7. 7
    Liren — April 24, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

    Oh, I’m a sucker for vodka sauce, but I love the chianti swap! Good thinking!

    AND, I’m just like you at the gym! I find I work out better when I’m watching Food Network – very motivating to think about food as you sweat off its effects, LOL!

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  10. 8
    Lindsey — January 10, 2014 @ 10:47 am

    This post really made me chuckle. And you convinced me that it is OKAY to drool over food while at the gym 😉 Especially since Ina is worth it. I am also in love with Italian cooking and trying new sauces so I’ll have to try this one!

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