In Roberto Serrini’s latest documentary, “Disco Sauce: The True Story of Penne Alla Vodka”, the food-fanatic filmmaker takes a deep dive into this controversial Italian-American classic, pushing the legal boundaries of culinary tradition to the point of almost landing himself in jail. With what seems like an innocuous comfort-classic, Serrini paints an irreverent, exciting, and sometimes dangerous account of trying to recreate the perfect version of this old-school favorite. In this exclusive essay for Appetito, Serrini explains his latest venture where Italian food meets film.
Food to me has always been dangerously fun. Growing up in an Italian house in the culinary melting pot of Queens, food was the way we showed love, the way we argued, the way we communicated in general. It was at weddings, funerals, birthdays, road trips, and every event in between. Food has had me on an adventure all my life, and just like that, I found it bringing me to another deeper, even more absurdly, potentially perilous journey.
After the success of my previous film Italy In Bocca, I got a few calls from various production companies and show-runners interested in developing it into a series which got my friend (and partner in the film) Peter Boggia and I thinking. One of the concepts was to take old dishes and revive them for a modern audience, something we called “Bring Back the Dish.” As we were sitting around the table, possibly a bit hungover from a long night of “brainstorming,” we looked down and saw what we were medicating ourselves with Penne Alla Vodka.
“What even is this?” I asked out loud. I mean I never really thought about what this dish was, and when I did, it still didn’t make any sense. Cream and tomatoes were a no-no in most Italian cooking, and don’t get me started on using vodka of all things. We immediately looked up the history of the dish and realized there was a hell of a story here.
We went out without much of a plan, just to talk to some chefs to hear what they thought about this weird Italo-American dish. I wanted to hear from a really culturally diverse set of culinary masters to get a full picture of what we were dealing with. The response was polarizing: Love it or hate it, they had fiery opinions on the subject. It wasn’t until I asked, “Well, how would you make it?” did I realize the true arc of the film. The recipes these chefs were laying on us were nothing less than mind blowing. This wasn’t culinary fusion; this was fission, a whole next level of pasta power. Immediately we went out to source some of these ingredients to try to put these dishes together ourselves.
If anyone has seen Italy In Bocca, you know Peter and I are only interested in the absolute best. Sourcing the best is part of what makes an amazing dish in our minds. It’s not just the quality or character of the ingredients themselves, it’s the people you get to talk to, the stories you get to hear, and the new friends you get to make. This is the magic of food. It’s everything that happens outside the dish to us; the meal itself is just a beautiful byproduct. So discovering these new shops and flavors was the adventure we were looking for. We went to the clandestine Cassinelli’s in Queens for pasta, talked bootleg American Vodka at King’s County Distillery in Brooklyn, and got schooled in all things chili from the succubus of spice Atef Boolabi at S.O.S. Chefs in the city. The world of flavor was opening up to us over this silly dish, but even so, I knew we could go farther. That’s when I decided to break the law to get the best.
Like most Italian recipes, there are only a handful of ingredients, and for Penne Alla Vodka, it’s no different: tomatoes, chili, vodka and cream. While you can deep dive on all of them to some degree, cream stood out to me. I was after the genuine article. I was going to have to find raw, unpasteurized cream, which is very illegal to sell in NYC and impossible to find, or should I say, almost impossible.
I ended up infiltrating a Raw Milk Facebook group posing as a mother looking for raw milk for my newborn (something that I discovered many mothers do). A fellow member told me about an under-the-radar farmer’s market on the Upper East Side and a contact there where I could drop his name and possibly get some raw dairy. I went with a hidden camera, made contact, and the next day bought raw cream in an alley in Brooklyn for cash. I never felt more alive going grocery shopping!
This all culminates to the cook obviously, which is always fun especially when there are multiple versions of penne alla vodka to be tried. My favorite part is that we’re not chefs. We love food; we know how to cook (thanks to our mothers), but we’re definitely not chefs. You will question our knife skills, and that’s OK. It’s another thing we think is missing from most programming. It’s the reason I love the Great British Bake-Off and gorge on TikTok because I demand watching real people who are really passionate do something, or at the very least, try.
The versions of the dish we attempted were wild. They came right off the top of the heads of the chefs with whom we talked. We had no recipe to follow, just a verbal explanation of the flavors. It made it more special to us. These dishes didn’t exist anywhere: not in a cookbook; not in their restaurants; just here at our table. We were witnessing culinary creation, and it was delicious.
People watch the film and laugh throughout because we go to absurd lengths like this to make such a stupid dish, but that is really the point. We wanted to inspire people to go on a food adventure and prove you didn’t need to be famous or celebrity or even have money to celebrate the thing we think food does best: bring people together. I love food and travel shows, but a lot of times I feel like they are lacking the excitement I feel being around amazing food. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching Tucci try to find Italy, but if he does or doesn’t, he’s gonna be Stanley Tucci tomorrow and Italy is still going to be there. There’s no real drama. For us, we’re putting what we love on the line, pushing it to the limit, and risking being imprisoned for what we’re truly passionate about.
Let me tell you: The pasta was so good, I would go to jail for it. That’s all I’m saying.
The trailer for Disco Sauce: The True Story of Penna alla Vodka (Warning: Explicit language)