Penne alla Vodka


Bon-Bons was a candy store on New Utrecht Ave and 77 Street in Brooklyn, about two blocks from where I used to live. New Utrecht Avenue was always in the shadow of the El that ran above it. The El was an elevated railway that ran through that part of the neighborhood.  The B train  ran on that El  line all the way to Coney Island in one direction and to Manhattan in the other direction. 

We used to hang out at Bon-Bons, me and my friends  Mike , Bobby, Larry, among others. Every time the train came we had to stop our conversation because the clanking and vibrations above us would drown out everything. Next to Bon-Bons was a Salumeria, an Italian Deli. The saw dust that covered the floor from inside the store would litter the front of the building and as you passed it you could smell the pungent aroma of the cheeses hanging in the window. And next to the Salumeria was a Chinese restaurant on the corner, that had interesting smells of it’s own. Non of us would ever eat there. The cooks, in their grease stained aprons, would sit outside of the kitchen door facing 77 street. They sat on top of large oil cans smoking their cigarettes. The grease would be dripping from the screen door that was propped open by the oil can. Not a very appetizing sight.

A fellow by the name of Eddie owned Bon-Bons along with his father-in-law, Vick. Eddie liked to call everyone a schmuck, a Yiddish slang word that has a dual meaning but in essence denotes an obnoxious person.  That was his favorite word. Over all he was a pleasant guy and every time we would march into the store Eddie would set us up with egg creams.

 As you walked into Bon-Bons, to the left was a wall display of comics and magazines. The Playboys were higher up. At the base of the wall were all the city newspapers and racing forms. To the right was the lunch counter with cigarettes and candy on the front outside wall. Vick  would be sitting there, on his stool in the corner, collecting  nickels for  candy bars. Cigarettes were 50 cents a pack back then. I remember when they went up to 52 cents and the nickel candy bar went up to 6 cents. It was always a bother coming up with that extra penny or two.

Along the lunch counter were round stools topped with red leather. We would sit on the stools and be able to spin around and keep up on what was going on in the rest of the candy store. On one end of the counter was a red coke dispenser machine with the Coca-Cola logo in white letters along the side. On the counter in front of the Coke dispenser, Eddie kept his barrel filled with pretzel rods, baseball cards, waxed teeth and lips, etc.  Further down the counter were the chrome soda dispensers with a black handle on top that you would pull towards you, one for seltzer the other for water. Just under the counter were the freezers for the ice cream and along side of them were the stainless steel double sinks, one with a long brush stuck to the bottom to clean the glasses in the soapy water and the other sink to rinse them clean. Above the sinks were the syrup dispensers. He had vanilla, chocolate, lime for the lime Rickey  and cherry syrup for the cherry Cokes. Eddie had two cake platters with domes on them on top of the counter for the corn muffins and danish. And on the other side of the counter, against the mirrored wall were the coffee makers, shelves for the glasses and a couple of milk shake mixers.

Sitting on the very end of the counter towards the back was Gus, a regular at Bon-Bons. Gus was a middle aged man who always wore a fresh clean white button down shirt and a black pair of slacks. He had an olive complexion and jet black hair that was slicked all the way back. Gus’s favorite word was “tuckaslacky”. Don’t ask me what it meant, I think he just said it to annoy us. Gus was always drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a Lucky Strike. I often wondered what Gus did for a living, being he hung out at Bon-Bons most of the day. So one time I asked him. “Gus, what do you do for a living”. He said, “I’m a painter”. I replied with, “not very busy?” Gus said, “It’s been slow”.  Thinking back, I realized that Gus made his living from other things. Things that he didn’t talk too much about. So we left it that Gus was a painter.

Another fixture in the candy store was an old man named Jimmy Costello. Costello was my grandfather’s age. As a matter of fact, he said he knew my grandfather. Costello was short in stature and always smoked a non-filtered Camel. He would smoke them so close to the end that his index and middle finger were stained dark with tar from the cigarette. Costello used to boast about the things he did when he was younger, running from the law, before he developed emphysema from all the years of smoking.  Costello and Gus would get together from time to time and go over the racing forms and discuss the horses that raced at “The Big A”, Aqueduct Race Track in Ozone Park Queens. And in between they would run numbers for people in the neighborhood.

One night we were all sitting at the counter having an egg cream when Eddie had to run out and take care of some business. He might have been gone for only 10 minutes, but asked us to watch the store. A customer walked in and sat down at the counter. I immediately jumped behind the counter and asked him, “What can I get you”. He ordered a chocolate egg cream. I knew how to make it with my eyes closed, I saw Eddie making it so many times. I picked up a Coke glass from the drain board and  added about “two fingers” of milk. I put the glass under the fountain and filled it with seltzer. After that I pumped about two full squirts of chocolate syrup into the glass and mixed it up with a long spoon. There…the perfect egg cream with about a two inch white foam head on top. That was the sequence of  ingredients you needed to make an egg cream. I served the customer and took his 15 cents and placed it in the register.  Just then Eddie walked in and the first thing he said was, “Schmuck!, What are you doing?” I told him I just made his customer an egg cream. And then I asked Eddie if he would make me work for him. That was the first job I ever had, being a soda jerk at Bon-Bons Candy Store.

Eddie said, “All right, I’ll give you $18 a week. You can start everyday after school till closing and open up on Saturdays”. They were closed on Sunday’s of course. I was thrilled! My friends all looked at me with envy. I got a job at Bon-Bons. Eddie showed me the ropes and instructions on how to make malts, chocolate and vanilla sodas, chocolate and vanilla egg creams, ice cream sodas, cherry cokes, lime Rickey’s, vanilla cokes. I had it all down. I served coffee , tea and hot chocolate and bagels and bialys with butter, corn muffins and danish. That was about the extent of the menu. Vic sat on his corner stool and handled the cigarettes and candy. It was great! When my friends showed up it was like I wasn’t working. I would be hanging out there anyway. Bon-Bons was our place.

One  early evening, Mike, Bobby and myself were exchanging digs with Eddie, and daring him to “moon” the next person that got off the next train.  When through the corner of his eye Bobby noticed a group of girls passing in front of Bon-Bons. His reaction was pure Bobby. “Hey, check out those chicks!” Mike could not be outdone by Bobby so the both of them stepped outside of Bon-Bons just as the girls turned the corner and made their way up 77 Street. Bobby poked Mike and said, “Call them!”. Mike poked Bobby back and said, “you call them!” Buy the time either one of them had the nerve to “hit” on the young ladies, they were halfway up the block. I was just chilling on my stool inside Bon-Bons watching this all unfold.

Bobby ran to the corner, past the Chinese Restaurant, put his fingers between his lips and let out a loud whistle, following that with, “YO! SWEETIE”! What happened next caught Bobby totally by surprise….they actually stopped and started walking towards him! 

We were around 16 years old and we all thought we were God’s gift to woman at that age. But Bobby’s reaction was more like a 10 year old who was in the middle of doing something wrong when his mother walked in the room. His eyes grew wide and he ran back towards Michael and said, “Holy crap, they’re coming!”. Mike didn’t believe him and walked past the Chinese Restaurant to look up 77 Street. Mike said, “what do we do now!”

Bobby and Mike  were always whistling at girls and making “cat calls”. But this was the first time they actually got a response, and were not prepared for it. Mike said to Bobby, “you talk to them!”, Bobby replied, “I don’t want to talk to them!” As they tried to make their way back into Bon-Bons for safety, I held the door closed. No escape!

At that point the girls turned the corner and the two “love magnets” had to face the music. After all, isn’t that what they were looking for? I mean, why are you calling out to girls if you’re not going to interact with them?

The girl’s excuse for answering the “cat calls” were they thought that we knew them. Bobby’s response was “oh, I thought you guys were someone else”. Once everyone got past that awkward moment, I stepped outside and added to the conversation. “Where are you girls from?” I asked. They all lived a few blocks away.  We started talking about a whole bunch of things. Sort of a getting to know you period. They hung out with us for a good hour. Looks like we hit “pay dirt”. At some point it was time for them to leave, but I knew we had to set up another meeting…a group date of some kind. The only thing I could think of was a trip to Radio City to see the Christmas show. They thought that was a great idea, so we set up the day and time we would all meet up at Bon-Bons then go into the City to see the Christmas Show.

I was brought up to be honorable and respectful of people. So even at the age of 16 when I made a commitment I stuck to it. The day had come for our outing with the girls. I was standing in front of Bon-Bons waiting for Bobby, Larry, Mike and the girls to show up. Bobby, Larry and Mike never showed. And had no intentions of showing up. And turning the corner walking towards me were the four young ladies we had met earlier in the week, all ready to go to Radio City. I made a mental decision at that point. Heck, if the other guys were too stupid to show up and go into the City with these new found friends, I would step up to the task and take them all in myself. Which is what I did. My first lesson in chivalry. But, you know what they say, nice guys finish last. And I learned that lesson as well. Each of my friends hooked up with one of those girls, except for me. Well, that was not entirely true. The one that had an interest in me, Ursula, reminded me of a…..well, I’ll be nice. Let’s just say the feeling was not mutual. Ursula wound up with my friend Vito Langamazini. It was a match made in  heaven. Thank God Love is Blind!

Penne alla Vodka only became popular in the 1970’s. So this is not a dish my grandmother or mother used to make. They would never think about putting cream in tomato sauce. What sacrilege! But this is one of my all time favorites. The vodka really kicks up the taste of the tomato sauce, and together with the cream make this a very smooth, delicious dish. Again, there are a few versions of this dish, but this is the best one I’ve tasted. Hope you enjoy it!

Penne allaVodka

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 ounces prosciutto, cut into thin strips
  • one 28 ounce can San Marzano peeled tomatoes, pureed in a blender
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup vodka
  • salt to taste
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 pound of penne pasta

In a large pan melt the butter and saute the garlic till golden. Stir in the prosciutto and cook for 1 minute.

Add the pureed tomatoes and red pepper flakes and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the cream and stir, cooking for 1 minute. Add the vodka and cook for another 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt.

Meanwhile, bring 5 quarts of water to a boil and add the pasta. When the pasta is done, drain, reserving some of the pasta water.

Add the pasta to the skillet with the sauce and toss until it is well coated. Add the cheese and toss.  Add some of the reserved pasta water if the pasta is too dry. Serve immediately.


About Peter Bocchieri

Peter was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and is a second generation Italian-American. He has a degree in Journalism from Long Island University and is an avid photographer, gardener and pet owner. Now that Peter is retired, he is relaxing at his home in North East Pennsylvania and cooking for his sons, Michael and Joseph, family and friends. Peter's passion for food was inspired by his Mother's and Grandmother's cooking, but at the age of 10 Peter felt he could do it better himself, so he did.
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4 Responses to Penne alla Vodka

  1. f m conte says:

    No too sure about the pasta recipe, but man you nailed bon bons. i haven’t thought about that place since i was a kid. i remember walking i n there and it is just as you described. My most vivd memory however, is walking in there, and learning that elvis was dead. i’ll never forget bon bons. thanks for the memory,

  2. Maria Lyons says:

    Made this dish twice and it is fantastic!!!! If you like Penne Vodka, you will love this recipe!

  3. Paul D says:

    “Tuckaslacky”…. A “Tuckas” is a “toosh”. If I am reading it correctly, it sounds like when my grandfather would say in yidish…”boy that guy is a real pain in the tuckas”. If I had to guess, a “tuckaslacky” (admittedly I am unfamiliar with this slang) sounds to me like a “lacky”…you know…like someone’s slave. Basically, I am saying I think Gus meant “butt slave” (haha).

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