Baked Ziti

FrankItalian-American, pasta, primi piatti29 Comments

Baked Ziti

It’s that time of year again. October is Italian-American heritage month, when each year as long time readers will know, we feature an Italian-American dish in lieu of our usual continental Italian fare. This year we have a real crowd-pleaser: Baked Ziti. True comfort food, a warming dish perfect for these increasingly chilly autumn evenings.

A kind of simplified southern-style lasagna, Baked Ziti has many of the same elements: pasta, tomato sauce and three kinds of cheese, Parmesan, ricotta and mozzarella. To those core ingredients, you can add sausage, and indeed, some versions of this dish really lean into the meat. Not mine, though. Although I do sometimes throw bits of sausage into my Baked Ziti for a little extra savor, for me the dish is really all about the tomato sauce and lots of cheese. My personal touch, taken from my grandmother’s lasagna recipe, is a ricotta cream made with egg, grated parmigiano-reggiano and parsley, rather than straight ricotta, which makes it extra special.

Either way, Baked Ziti offers a similar taste—and all the comfort—of a classic lasagna with a fraction of the effort. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Italian-American heritage month.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6, or more, depending on appetites

  • 500g (1 lb) ziti (or other short pasta: see Notes)
  • 1 large batch of marinara sauce, made with one large can (800g/26 oz) tomatoes
  • 1 ball of mozzarella (about 250g/8oz), cut into cubes

For the ricotta cream:

  • 250g (8 oz) ricotta cheese (one small container)
  • 2-3 eggs
  • 100g (3-1/2 oz) freshly grated parmigiano-reggi
  • A couple of sprigs of fresh parsley, finely minced
  • Salt and pepper

Optional:

  • 2-3 links of sweet Italian sausage, fried and cut into dice

For the baking:

  • More grated parmigiano-reggiano, q.b.
  • Olive oil for greasing the baking dish and drizzling on top of the pasta

Directions

Prepping the ingredients

Prepare the marinara sauce following the directions found in this post. Be generous with the olive oil and make sure the sauce remains quite loose, as it will continue to reduce in the oven.

Prepare the ricotta cream: In a large mixing bowl, stir the ricotta with a wooden spoon to soften it, then mix in the egg, grated cheese, minced parsley and a pinch of salt and pepper, until you have a smooth uniform cream. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

Cut the mozzarella into dice.

If using, fry up the sausages, then let them cool and cut them into dice.

Just before you’re ready to bake, cook the ziti in well salted water until they are just slightly underdone, perhaps a minute less than indicated on the package.

Assembling the Dish

When the pasta is done, transfer it to a large mixing bowl and dress it with enough marinara sauce to coat it lightly.

Lay down a layer of the pasta in a well-greased baking dish. Ladle over a bit more of the sauce, sprinkle with grated parmigiano-reggiano, then add dollops of the ricotta cream here and there, along with the mozzarella cubes and, if using, the bits of sausage.

Repeat until you’ve used up the ingredients. For the final layer, lay on the pasta first, slather over a generous ladling of the sauce, then sprinkle with more grated parmigiano-reggiano and mozzarella cubes. Drizzle with olive oil.

Baking and Serving

Bake in a hot (200C/400F) oven for about 20-30 minutes, or until the dish is bubbly hot and nicely browned on top.

Let you Baked Ziti settle for 10 minutes or so before serving. Accompany if you like with any remaining sauce and more grated cheese.

Baked Ziti

Notes

The classic pasta for Baked Ziti is, of course, ziti. It’s in the name, after all. But ziti is sometimes hard to find. You could substitute another short tubular pasta like penne, which is actually rather similar, especially if you can find penne lisce (the kind without ribbing) aka mostaccioli. Rigatoni would also work beautifully. Or, casting your net a bit further, you could also go for a non-tubular shape like conchiglie (shells) or even elbows. The mouth feel will, of course, be quite different but it’ll be equally delicious.

Although Baked Ziti involves a number of steps, it’s not at all hard if you just take each step one at a time. The main tricky bit, if you want to call it that—common to all baked pasta dishes—is the risk that the dish dries out in the oven as the pasta absorbs the sauce and the sauce reduces further.

No worries, though. The solution is quite straightforward: Just make a big batch of sauce, keep it quite loose, and use it liberally. Also make sure you don’t leave the dish in the oven too long. You should take it out of the while the pasta is still quite ‘saucy’ as it will continue to absorb the sauce as it settles. Thirty minutes in the oven should be a kind of maximum. But if despite all precautions you find the pasta is still drier than you’d like, that’s where serving extra sauce at table comes in handy. So be sure to make more sauce than you think you’ll need. If you have any left over, you can always save it for another meal.

Variations

Carnivores have some options. For instance, you can crumble the sausage meat before fry it, rather than frying the sausages whole and cutting them up. You can use this as your base for making a meatier version of the marinara if you like. Another trick is to use the sausage meat, out of its casing, to make tiny sausage meatballs. You then add the tomato sauce to the same pot and let them simmer together, so the sausage infuses the sauce with its savor.

There is a version of Baked Ziti where you add crumbled ground beef rather than sausage, and yet others where you dress the pasta with a kind of sugo di carne. There are indeed Italian baked pasta recipes along these lines, so this approach is perfectly authentic. But at that point you’re wandering quite far from the essential dish towards a pasta con ragù al forno. Not bad eating by any means, but I wouldn’t call it Baked Ziti. At least if you ask me.

As with so many Italian-American dishes, Baked Ziti has its origins in the Old Country, in this case in Naples and Campania. If you’re interested in making the Neapolitan original, zitoni al forno, check out this post from way back in 2009, only a few months after I launched this little website. (Please don’t mind the ugly photography—we’ve learned a lot since those early days…)

Making ahead

Contrary to some advice you might find online, I wouldn’t recommend making Baked Ziti ahead. It’s really at its best when freshly prepared and right out of the oven. (Well, after settling for a few minutes, that is.) That tendency for the pasta to dry out just gets worse if you don’t eat it right away.

Having said that, your Baked Ziti will still be more than edible. If you do make this ahead, I’d undercook it on your first go, say only 15 minutes, then finish it off in the oven for another 15-20 minutes before you’re ready to serve. You can also leave some time between assembling the dish and baking it, say no more than an hour or so, without too much harm.

Baked Ziti

An Italian American classic
Total Time1 hr
Course: Primo
Cuisine: Italian-American
Keyword: baked, pasta

Ingredients

  • 500g 1 lb ziti ( or other short pasta
  • 1 batch marinara sauce made with one large can (800g/26 oz) tomatoes
  • 1 ball mozzarella (about 250g/8oz), cut into cubes

For the ricotta cream:

  • 250g 8 oz ricotta cheese (one small container)
  • 2-3 eggs
  • 100g 3-1/2 oz freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano
  • A couple of sprigs of fresh parsley finely minced
  • Salt and pepper

Optional

  • 2-3 sweet Italian sausages

For baking:

  • grated parmigiano-reggiano
  • Olive oil for greasing the baking dish and drizzling on top of the pasta

Instructions

Prepping the ingredient

  • Prepare the marinara sauce following the directions found in this post. Be generous with the olive oil and make sure the sauce remains quite loose, as it will continue to reduce in the oven. 
  • Prepare the ricotta cream: In a large mixing bowl, stir the ricotta with a wooden spoon to soften it, then mix in the egg, grated cheese, minced parsley and a pinch of salt and pepper, until you have a smooth uniform cream. Taste and adjust for seasoning. 
  • Cut the mozzarella into small dice
  • If using, fry up the sausages, then let them cool and cut them into dice. 
  • Just before you're ready to bake, cook the ziti in well salted water until they are just slightly underdone, perhaps a minute less than indicated on the package. 

Assembling the dish:

  • When the pasta is done, transfer it to a large mixing bowl and dress it with enough marinara sauce to coat it lightly. 
  • Lay down a layer of the pasta in a well-greased baking dish. Ladle over a bit more of the sauce, sprinkle with grated parmigiano-reggiano, then add dollops of the ricotta cream here and there, along with the mozzarella cubes and, if using, the bits of sausage. 
  • Repeat until you've used up the ingredients. For the final layer, lay on the pasta first, slather over a generous ladling of the sauce, then sprinkle with more grated parmigiano-reggiano and mozzarella cubes. Drizzle with olive oil. 

Baking and serving

  • Bake in a hot (200C/400F) oven for about 20-30 minutes, or until the dish is bubbly hot and nicely browned on top. 
  • Let you Baked Ziti settle for 10 minutes or so before serving. Accompany if you like with any remaining sauce and more grated cheese. 

Notes

The recipe for marinara sauce can be found here

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29 Comments on “Baked Ziti”

  1. Happy Italian-American month, I also was unaware of the event. A favorite dish from my childhood. Not from my mom’s kitchen, but from the little Italian place down the street from us. I recently made the Swedish version, Pastagratäng Ziti, but found it lacking. In comparing the recipes, I find that our version doesn’t include ricotta cheese. Now I know what was missing. Frank, are you using fresh mozzarella or semi-soft processed?

    1. You can use either, and I’m sure most cooks here in the US nowadays use processed. Having said that, it comes out much better, creamier and more luscious, if you use fresh. So if you have a choice, I’d definitely go that route!

  2. che bonta’, Frank. Devo proprio ops… I am writing in Italian.,., sorry… I must really try this now that I am in Lucca, where ricotta is excellent. thanks

  3. Baked Ziti truly is one of the ultimate comfort foods. I love it! Years ago, some brand of pasta (I don’t remember which) marketed a pasta that was designed for baked pasta recipes. I used it, and it was great. Then they stopped making it. Silly me thought that was the end of baked ziti. Hah – this was way back when I was learning how to cook! Either way, baked ziti is one of my all time favorites, and I love the ricotta cream addition here!

    1. You must have been truly distraught when they stopped making that pasta, lol! But in a way, it could have been a blessing in disguise. After all it obliged you to branch out and discover other options. Thanks so much for stopping by, David!

  4. It is that time of year again, isn’t it? I didn’t realize that October is Italian-American heritage month, but I’m glad it is, because I’m such a fan of that cuisine, especially when it wanders into comfort food territory. There’s something so wonderful about a baked pasta.

    1. Thanks, Jeff! It’s hard to imagine anyone not liking baked pasta. Someone some day will discover why we humans enjoy these kinds of dishes so much… I’m sure there’s some scientific explanation? Meanwhile, though, I’ll keep on enjoying them. 🙂

      1. For me, it’s the texture. I think it’s that the pasta gets a bit dried out and chewier. I especially love the bits that get crisped at the edges.

  5. I can see that Angelina’s ricotta cream would en this perfectly, Frank. The only baked pastas we ever had from my tio’s family were lasagne (spelled with an A) and stuffed shells. I don’t think I have ever had baked ziti, other than inside the timpano from “Big Night.” I will definitely give this a try when we return from Spain!

    1. In fact, Baked Ziti wasn’t part of our family’s traditions, either, as far as I can remember. Or shells, actually. It was lasagna all the way… Still, that’s a lot of work so “short cut” recipes like this one really come in handy. Anyway, hop you like it! And enjoy Spain!

  6. Now I’m hungry! Have you ever seen Arthur Schwartz’ version for Ziti alla Sorrentino in his wonderful Naples at Table book? It’s very light and simple with the lovely addition of fresh basil. Your version sounds more decadent and utterly delicious! I wish I had some right now. Buona domenica Frank.

    1. Wonderful book! I have it but hadn’t checked out that recipe until you mentioned it. Lovely recipe, remarkably similar to this one but, as usual, the Italian version is rather lighter on the cheese than the Italian-American one.

      And some other interesting differences, like the mixing of some tomato sauce into the ricotta, rather than the ricotta cream I call for here. The basil is an interesting touch—I use it in my marinara but no doubt it would be more prominent where you add it when you assemble the dish for baking.

      Thanks for the heads up!

  7. I love this dish! Of course I’m a real fan of Italian-American food (it”s the “Italian” I grew up with), and I think this is the best dish of the oeuvre. I’ve come to think it’s better than lasagna, and certainly easier to make. Yours looks terrific! I often do make this with a sausage sauce, but marina is probably the classic. Thanks for this. And thanks for the kind words you left on my blog! I’ll still be visiting your blog (one has to eat, after all!), but probably (likely) less frequently in the future. Thank you.

    1. What can I say? It’s the end of an era, John! But glad to hear you plan to stay connected. Best wishes for your future endeavors.

  8. I was looking for something to cook tonight – this recipe really hits the spot! I will go out and look for some fennel sausages to go in it.

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