Shrimp Rigatoni With Crab Vodka Sauce

Shrimp Rigatoni with Crab Vodka Sauce
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So here we are at the end of another decade and it’s hard to believe it. Or at least it’s hard for me to believe it. Perhaps you’re limping out of this past decade and feel like the next has been a long time coming. But for me, it’s a little bit of a shock. I will admit it has me feeling a touch old. But at the same time, I know I wouldn’t trade where I am at the end of 2019 for where I was at the end of 2009. So, I’ll take the extra 10 years and toast them with a glass of bubbly and a bowl of this Shrimp Rigatoni with Crab Vodka Sauce.

Is Seafood Synonymous with New Years?

Every year, around this time I find myself wandering the seafood aisle at the grocery store. When I was a kid, it wasn’t uncommon for us to indulge in lobster or seared scallops on New Year’s Eve. So for me, a seafood menu to end the year is completely normal and I don’t appear to be alone in this.

Lately, half of the food I’ve been seeing in my various foodie feeds has been seafood-centric. And it got me thinking, is there a reason we tend to gravitate towards seafood when we salute a passing year? Is it just that caviar and smoked salmon are champagne’s natural companion? Or are there larger cultural forces at work here. I may never know the actual answer to this very pointless question but I can’t help but be curious. Why, when this Shrimp Rigatoni with Crab Vodka Sauce wandered into my head, did I immediately think it was the ideal centerpiece for a New Year’s feast?

Sautéing the shrimp shells.

All That Glitters is Sequin

I think it’s a caviar thing. Somewhere along the way, we decided New Year’s Eve was supposed to be classy in a sexy little black dress kind of way. I suppose, after an interlude of holiday camp and kitsch, the New Year’s party became the palette cleanser. So, every year we seem hellbent on doing our best impression of Zelda Fitzgerald whilst downing champagne and slurping oysters Rockefeller.

Sautéed shrimp with crushed red pepper flakes

Seafood was the indulgence of the rich and fashionable of a bygone era. If we enjoy stealing their fashion every December 31st, it stands to reason that we would adopt their eating habits too. Perhaps this is why shrimp cocktails, lobster thermidor, and oysters on the half-shell feel oh so right at this time of year. The corals and red pop against a backdrop of black sequin and seafood towers never fail to exude elegance. But elegance comes with an ugly price tag and today’s Shrimp Rigatoni with Crab Vodka Sauce does not.

The beginnings of the Crab Vodka Sauce

Shrimp Rigatoni with Crab Vodka Sauce

So say, you don’t have a golden ticket to a Gatsby-esque fete this evening. Say, instead, you’re having a few of your favorite people coming round for a drink and a laugh. Well, a seafood tower and a caviar station might seem a bit pretentious. You know what’s not pretentious but still a little bit fancy? This Shrimp Rigatoni with Crab Vodka Sauce.

Adding cream to the Crab Vodka Sauce

Nothing says elegant comfort like the American Italian classic vodka sauce. Though the sauce likely originated in Italy, it can’t be denied that vodka sauce hit its peak popularity on North American shores. Penne Alla Vodka was the height of sophistication in 1980s America. The dish was typically made with a tomato sauce base enhanced with vodka, chili flakes, pancetta, and cream. And in many ways, this Shrimp Rigatoni with Crab Vodka Sauce stays true to its source of inspiration

Crab Vodka Sauce

Does Vodka Sauce Taste Like Vodka?

The short answer to this question is no. The vodka acts as an emulsifier and encourages the tomatoes to release their sugars. The resulting sauce is surprisingly sweet and creamy in consistency before the cream even joins the party. Most of the vodka’s flavor disappears as the sauce cooks. Now, I held true to the winning combo of vodka, tomato, and cream. I even remained faithful to the chili flakes. Where I differed was the pancetta.

Shrimp Rigatoni with Crab Vodka Sauce

I opted instead to first saute the shrimp shells to create a slight umami base for the sauce. Then I added a teaspoon of anchovy paste to the shallots and chili flakes for a little funk. And at the very end, I stirred in some high-quality canned crab meat. You can, of course, use fresh but I think that caliber of crab meat is better left to nothing more than a bit of butter. This vodka sauce is pretty full-on and I think the premium quality of the meat will get lost. But that being said, getting the bottom of the barrel won’t do either. Select a can that emphasizes premium white meat on the label.

Shrimp Rigatoni with Crab Vodka Sauce

There is, of course, the other fairly obvious alteration of swapping out penne for rigatoni but that is completely optional. I chose rigatoni because it is my favorite tubular pasta. Feel free to use penne if that’s more your speed. Ziti would be a great choice as well. Basically, if there’s a tube for the sauce to take up residence in, you’re totally good to go.

Shrimp Rigatoni with Crab Vodka Sauce

So that’s the skinny on this Shrimp Rigatoni with Crab Vodka Sauce. It’s got class, a little retro flair and a whole lot of seafood. Basically, it’s the royal flush of New Year’s Eve mains.

Shrimp Rigatoni with Crab Vodka Sauce

Happy New Year!


Shrimp Rigatoni with Crab Vodka Sauce

This Shrimp Rigatoni with Crab Vodka Sauce features a rich tomato-based sauce spiked with vodka and finished with cream laced with chunks of crab meat and tender shrimp.
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Course Main Course
Cuisine American, Italian


  • 400 g (14 oz) *frozen shell-on shrimp
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 shallots thinly sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic minced
  • 1 tsp anchovy paste
  • 2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 can whole tomatoes
  • 1 cup vodka
  • 6-7 sprigs fresh oregano
  • 450 g (16 oz) dried rigatoni
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 120 g (4 oz) canned white crab meat drained
  • shredded Grana Padano cheese for sprinkling


  • Remove the shells from the shrimp and reserve. Transfer the shrimp to a bowl and add the baking soda and salt. Toss to coat and set aside.
  • Heat the olive oil in a large, deep skillet until shimmering. Add the reserved shells and saute for 10 minutes over a low flame. Remove the shells from the skillet and discard.
  • Add the shrimp to the skillet and saute until just pink. Transfer the shrimp to a plate and set aside.
  • Add more oil to the pan if needed and add the shallots and a pinch of salt. Sweat the shallots for 5 minutes or until just translucent. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, about 2 minutes more. Add the anchovy paste and chili flakes and saute until the paste melts.
  • Pour in the canned tomatoes. Roughly break them apart using the end of a spoon. Stir in the vodka and a healthy pinch of salt. Bring the mixture to a boil and toss in the oregano. Reduce to a simmer and let cook for 10 minutes.
  • While the sauce is simmering, place a large pot of water over high heat and bring to a boil. Liberally salt the water and add the rigatoni. Cook the rigatoni according to a package's directions. Drain the pasta and rinse. Set aside until ready to use.
  • Once the 10 minutes have passed, remove the oregano bundle and discard it. Transfer the sauce to a food processor and blitz until smooth. Return the sauce to the skillet and place over a low flame. Add the cream and crab meat and stir to combine. Add the shrimp back in and stir until heated through.
  • Stir the pasta into sauce until well coated. Divide the pasta amongst 4-6 pasta bowls and garnish with shredded Grana Padano cheese and fresh oregano leaves. Serve immediately with a glass of bubbly.


*I make it a general rule to only buy shrimp with the shell-on. Not only are they often less expensive than their shelled counterparts, they also come with a bonus ingredient: the shells themselves. They are an ideal base for seafood stocks, chowders and sauces. If not using right away, you can simply freeze them and create a stock pile to make other shrimpier dishes like my Shrimp Bisque Risotto
Keyword crab, Cream, Pasta, shrimp

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