Pasta al Forno, which means baked pasta, is a delicious, hearty pasta dish that uses the best of Italian ingredients to create a comforting and filling dish that is great for holidays and for feeding a crowd. I think every Italian family makes their pasta al forno a bit differently – in ours, we make the sauce with mini meatballs – it gives a great texture to the dish and add so much flavor. Making the mini meatballs was always my job growing up. I love the way fresh mozzarella melts in this bake and its the only change I’ve made to my mom’s original recipe.
In our house, pasta al forno was a special occasion meal. When my mother asked my brother and I what we wanted to eat on our birthdays, we always requested this dish, and so that is always where my mind goes at first when I prepare this. As I grew up and got married and started doing a lot of my own cooking, this dish took on new meaning, as I prepared it and dropped it off for friends and family having a new baby, grieving a loved one, or just having a tough time. It’s a wonderfully comforting and delicious dish, and is great to prepare for others or make ahead, as it can be assembled (and even frozen) in advance of cooking.
Pasta al Forno | Baked Rigatoni
- 1 lb Rigatoni pasta
- 1 lb Fresh Mozzarella
- 1/2 cup parmesan cheese
- 2 32 oz jars of Passata, or 2 28 oz cans tomato puree with no salt or other seasoning added
- 28-32 oz water
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 4-6 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
- Red Pepper flakes to taste
- 1 1/2 tablespoons salt
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons dried parsley
- 2 teaspoons dried basil
- 1 lb ground beef (80-20)
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/2 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon chopped, fresh, flat leaf Italian parsley, plus more for garnish
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
For the Sauce:
For the Meatballs:
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Set a large pot of water to boil on the stove. Cut the mozzarella into 1/4 inch cubes.
- Meanwhile, prepare the meatballs. In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients – ground beef, egg, breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, parsley, salt and pepper – and mix well so that the ingredients are uniformly distributed thoughout the meat. Roll meat mixture into small balls about 1 inche in diameter, and set in a plate. Remember to wash hands properly after handling raw meat.
- Heat a heavy bottomed pot over medium-high heat for 1-2 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and allow to heat for 1-2 minutes. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. Add your passata or tomato puree, then rinse out the jar or can by filling it halfway with tap water. Add the water to the sauce and stir to combine. To the sauce, add all the seasonings – salt, oregano, parsley, and basil. Stir to combine. Allow sauce to come to a vigorous boil.
- Once the sauce has reached a boil, reduce the heat to a low flame, and add the meatballs. Stir gently so that all of the meat has been covered with sauce, and simmer on low for about 15 minutes. Note that you’ll want the meatballs slightly undercooked, as they’ll bake again.
- By now, the pasta water should be boiling. Add the rigatoni. Cook for 7-10 minutes, until rigatoni are about halfway cooked (this will depend on the size that you’ve selected). Drain the pasta, and return to the pot. Add a ladle of two of sauce and toss so the pasta doesn’t stick.
- In a baking dish, add one ladle of tomato sauce (no meatballs). Sprinkle a tablespoon or so of parmesan cheese. Add enough rigatoni to cover the bottom of the baking sheet. Spoon about 1/3 of the mozzarella mixture on top. Add another ladle of tomato sauce, picking up some mini meatballs with it, and cover the pasta. Continue to layer the ingredients, ending with the mozzarella and covering with the last of the sauce so that the cheese doesn’t burn. Sprinkle remaining parmesan cheese on top.
- Cover the dish and bake for 25-30 minutes, until pasta is cooked fully and mozzarella is melted. Let sit for 5-10 minutes before enjoying.