If baked pappardelle with radicchio is a good example of a northern Italian baked pasta dish, baked ziti, as this dish is known in English, typifies the southern Italian approach, and more specifically the Neapolitan approach, so much so, in fact, that this dish is sometimes called pasta al forno alla napoletana, although that name is somewhat misleading, since there are any number of Neapolitan baked pasta dishes. Baked ziti is, of course, also one of the signature dishes of Italian immigrant cooking, sometimes taking on some really extravagant variations overseas, like the “four cheese baked ziti” or, even this revolting recipe—the very first ‘hit’ if you Google ‘baked ziti’—calling for jarred ‘spaghetti sauce’, three different kinds of cheese and, of all things, sour cream! The version you’ll find in this post, based loosely on a recipe received from a lady from Naples (see below), is a bit more restrained. It also illustrates one of the many ways in which ragù della domenica can be used.
- 250g (1/2 lb) ziti
- 5dl (2-3 cups) ragù (aka Sunday Sauce)
- A large ball of fresh mozzarella
For the meatballs:
- 1/4 recipe for Angelina’s Meatloaf
Step 1: You begin by shallow-frying little meatballs, about the size of a cherry or a hazelnut, called polpettine in Italian, made from the same mixture of meat, cheese, egg, milk-soaked bread, garlic and parsley used for a polpettone. Remove them from the frying pan as soon as they are nicely golden-brown and add more as you go, until you have used up all the mixture.
Step 2: Meanwhile, cook your ziti very al dente in abundant well-salted water. Warm some leftover ragù and slice a large ball of mozzarella into thin slices, breaking them apart into bite-sized pieces.
Step 3: Once these preparatory steps are complete, it is time to assemble the dish. Spoon a bit of the ragù in the bottom of a baking dish, then add a layer of pasta. Nap the ziti with more ragù, arrange the polpettine here and there on top of the pasta and sauce, then pieces of mozzarella, then sprinkle it all with an ample amount of grated pecorino cheese. Add another layer of pasta and repeat until you’ve used up all your pasta. End with a layer of tomato sauce and ample grated cheese, drizzling a bit of olive oil on top to encourage browning.
Step 4: Bake in a very hot oven (220C, 450F) for about 15-20 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling nicely and the top is lightly browned. Allow the dish to cool off for a few minutes, and serve.
I based this recipe on one I received from a member of the Gnocchi ai funghi Recipe Exchange Club, named Maria Rosaria Gargiulo. Her recipe, though, calls for making a bolognese-style ragù with half the chopped meat and the polpettine with the other half. This struck me as a bit heavy—not that this dish will ever be light—so I used some leftover Neapolitan ragù, which is, in any event, more typical of this dish. If you don’t have any ragù on hand and don’t have the time or inclination to make some, then you can always use a simple sugo di pomodoro. The result will be a bit less flavorful, but still good.
The main variation you will see in recipes for baked ziti is whether to add ricotta cheese in addition to the mozzarella. This time, after some equivocation, I opted not to use the ricotta. But if you do, soften the ricotta by adding a bit of hot water and/or ragù and work it into the cheese with a wooden spoon, so that the ricotta becomes almost ‘pourable’. Then place dabs of it here and there on top of the pasta along with the meatballs and mozzarella. Some recipes call for sliced hard-boiled egg as well, though this does not appeal terribly much to me. (With these additions, the dish will begin to taste something like lasagne di carnevale.) Sour cream, on the other hand, is definitely not authentic!
Ziti, by the way, traditionally came in long pieces, like giant bucatini, that you need to break up into bite-sized pieces (see photo below). I still like them that way when I can find them, basically just for fun. They are sold as “long ziti” in Italian specialty shops but they can be hard to find. Otherwise, ‘regular’ ziti—which look a bit like smooth, overgrown penne—are perfectly fine. You can also substitute other similarly shaped pasta like penne or rigatoni.
The meatballs are an important part of this dish. There are a few keys to making good meatballs. First, make sure that the mixture is well seasoned and, in particular, don’t skim on the salt or the cheese (be it parmesan or pecorino). Second, use enough, but not too much, milk-soaked bread (or breadcrumbs) as ‘filler’, so that the texture is not too soft or not too hard. (The more filler you use, the softer the meatballs will be.) Third, make sure that you shallow fry the meatballs in light olive oil (or vegetable oil) over moderate heat, so they neither cook too quickly—the bread content will mean they brown quickly and could burn—nor too slowly, giving in a dry, greasy result. The oil should bubble up gently around the meatballs when you place them in the oil (see picture below). To be sure that your mixture is properly seasoned and has the right texture, it is a good idea to form one meatball, fry it up and taste it. If it passes your taste test, proceed. If not, adjust seasoning or filler content.
This dish is also very good—perhaps even better—reheated the day after (or if you’re like me, eaten at room temperature). The texture will be very different, much more ‘solid’ than when served right out of the oven, but the flavors will be both smoother and more intense.