Is there anything more comforting than baked pasta? If there is, I haven’t come across it yet. And while some pasta al forno dishes in the Italian repertoire—especially the two ‘star’ lasagne dishes, the South’s lasagna di carnevale and the North’s lasagne alla bolognese—are elaborate affairs, there are everyday versions that don’t require days in the kitchen.
Here’s one that you can whip up practically at the spur of the moment. It is a simple mixture of parboiled store-bought pasta, meat sauce and béchamel, seasoned with some grated cheese and perhaps a bit of nutmeg, the baked in a hot oven until bubbly and bursting with flavor… Now, that’s my kind of eating.
Serves 4-6 people, or more as part of a multicourse meal
- 500g (1 lb.) short, dried pasta such as penne or rigatoni
- 1 recipe of sugo di carne
- 1 recipe of béchamel sauce
- 100g (4 oz.) grated parmesan cheese (or more to taste) plus a bit more for topping
- Salt and pepper
- A pinch of ground nutmeg
- A few pats of butter
Cook the pasta in well salted water as you normally would, but drain the pasta while it is still slightly underdone.
Pour the drained pasta into a large bowl, add the sugo di carne and mix well. Then add the bechamel sauce, grated cheese and nutmeg, gently folding it into the pasta and sauce. Do not attempt to make a smooth mixture out of it—just the opposite, you want interspersed ‘streaks’ of sauce and bechamel, which makes for a much more interesting dish. The mixture will be (and should be) rather loose—remember, the pasta will continue to absorb liquid as it bakes. If the mixture is a bit dry or sticky, add some liquid (milk or broth or just some water). Taste and adjust for seasoning; the mixture should be quite savory.
Pour the contents of the bowl into a greased baking dish. Top with more grated cheese and a few pats of butter here and there. (Some people like to hold back some of the bechamel as well as a topping.) Bake in a hot oven (200°C/400°F) for about 20-30 minutes, until the top is nicely browned and the pasta is hot and bubbly. Let the dish rest at least 5 minutes before serving.
You can use just about any store-bought pasta for a baked pasta dish, although short, tubular pastas like penne or rigatoni are probably the most commonly used. This time, though, I used some store-bought lasagnette, which I broke into short lengths, and it was delicious.
The portions here of the two sauces sauce are really just indicative; if you like your dish meatier, feel free to add more meat sauce, if you like it creamier, more béchamel and, as mentioned above, you can add more cheese if you like it cheesier. You can be creative with this dish if you like, adding one or two other ingredients that may strike your fancy, for example, cubes of mozzarella or provola to the mixture, or sliced and sautéed mushrooms, some cubed ham, peas, sliced hard-boiled eggs or even tiny meatballs. But do resist the tempation to add everything but the kitchen sink. As I’ve said before the Italian culinary aesthetic is mostly about balance, not extravagance.
There are many versions of pasta al forno, many of which are vegetarian. A typical southern baked pasta dish is zitoni al forno con le polpettine, known among Italian-Americans as Baked Ziti, which we have featured here on Memorie di Angelina. Some Italian versions are very cheesy, a bit along the lines of American macaroni and cheese. But to mind, this version will always be the pasta al forno, the one to master first before trying anything else.
Baked pasta is traditionally considered a primo or first course, but I suspect most people today would be happy to make it a meal in itself, perhaps followed by a green salad and a piece of fruit. That’s certain enough for me, even on a Sunday!