Ziti al Forno-Baked Ziti with Meat Sauce is a favorite recipe for the holidays or even just for an Italian Sunday with family. The pasta al forno casserole is baked until it’s a cheesy and bubbly perfection. The ultimate Italian comfort food dish!
Making baked ziti is similar making many Italian pasta dish in a casserole, but it may possibly be one of the easiest versions. We are talking total Italian comfort food in one dish. This is a cozy Italian meal to enjoy on a Sunday or even for a special holiday. It could even be prepped a day or two in advance and left covered in the refrigerator for when you’re ready to bake it.
Published January 2021 and republished January 2022. I meant to post this pasta recipe a very long time ago, and never finished working on the photos. Right now seems like when we could all use a plate of something warm and comforting.
When I think of Italian comfort food, it usually involves a baked pasta dish.
What is baked ziti?
Baked ziti is an oven baked pasta with a long, and fascinating history. Ziti al forno (baked ziti)is a dish that dates all the way back to the Renaissance! Noblemen enjoyed it at special celebrations and ceremonies. It is a staple dish all over Southern Italy and is usually made on Sundays, special occasions or a holiday. It could be found at wedding celebrations (zita derives from maccheroni della zita, “macaroni of the bride/young maiden/young girl,” in the southern Italian dialect).
Are there different versions of ziti al forno in Italy?
Yes! Like so many Italian dishes, this dish will vary region to region (even town to town within a region).
There is a version from Naples and they add little meatballs. There is a Sicilian version with a layer of scrambled eggs. My Calabrian mother-in-law makes her baked pasta with little meatballs and adds the besciamella sauce (bechamel).
This is a Italian piatto unico, otherwise known as the main and only dish (as opposed to having a first and second course, like is usually how meals go in Italy). In Italy, a pasta dish is a way for the mamma or nonna to show off her creativity in the kitchen. And you could get as creative as you want to be in this delicious dish.
Making pasta dishes is a way for a home cook to show off their kitchen creativity. And you could really change up this dish to make it your version. You could change the meat you use in the sauce (use sausage instead of beef) and also the type of grated cheese.
“Al forno” in Italian means in the oven. So like baked manicotti or lasagne, this is a pasta casserole baked in the oven but a lot easier to put together. A really great one-pan meal when you serve it with your favorite salad. Add in more carbs with delicious crusty Italian bread. If you make this on a Sunday, you’ll have leftovers for most likely the whole week. Unless you have family or very special friends over to enjoy it with you.
The recipe begins with a really nice ragu’ (aka, Bolognese or meat sauce). I usually have a container of homemade ragu’ in the fridge. Yes, I’m that kind of an Italian mom. It’s the perfect sauce to enjoy when you’re not quite sure what to make for dinner (or as it happens in our house, lunch).
The next part of the recipe is pre-cooking the pasta. And then once you have your ricotta mixture and cheese lined up with the sauce, you begin the layering. I like to use fresh basil (I still have some thriving in my little herb garden).
What Is Ziti?
Ziti is a pasta shape that is smaller sort of similar to penne and smaller than rigatoni. The edges of ziti are cut straight (as opposed to the diagonal cut of penne). Ziti could sometimes be difficult to find, so you could totally sub ziti with penne or rigatoni.sed for baked It is smaller than rigatoni and similar in shape to penne, rather with straight cut edges instead of diagonal. You’ll find this pasta is usually used in baked pasta dishes as it holds up well to those necessary thick sauces and all the heat that happens in our oven.
What Does Al Forno Mean?
Al forno just simply means in the oven! In Italian it will be called “pasta al forno” and in a traditional Italian version, it will have a besciamella sauce. But for this version, we are using ricotta, which is more prevalent in more Italian-American recipes. Although there are plenty of pasta al forno recipes in Italy that do use creamy ricotta! Things like lasagna, traditional meaty sauce baked ziti, and baked mac and cheese all fall into this delicious category.
How do you make baked ziti (al forno)?
Making baked ziti is similar to making baked manicotti or even a lasagna. It begins with the an Italian ragu’ (which you may also know as Bolognese sauce, or an Italian meat sauce). I usually make mine 2-3 days ahead of time. I believe the It does get better in flavor the more time it is chilled in the fridge. I even think the flavor is even richer when it gets reheated.
Once you have the sauce prepped, the next part of the recipe is boiling the pasta. You cook it until it is very al dente. I cook until it’s about halfway cooked. Keep in mind the pasta will cook up more when it’s baked in the oven. So this is actually another step you could do ahead of time. You could precook the pasta and let it cool down. Once it cools down, store it in a zipped lock bag or an airtight container until you’re ready to assemble with the sauce and cheeses.
When you are ready to bake the pasta, you assemble it by beginning with a layer of meat sauce the bottom, layer on top half of the pasta.
Top with half of the ricotta mixture (mom likes to put fresh basil on top of the ricotta mixture)…
Add on mozzarella, the grated cheese, some more sauce, the rest of the pasta.
Add on some more meat sauce and cheese.
Those are the basic steps to put it together. Yes…this baked pasta is really that easy to make.
The casserole then gets placed in the oven to bake for almont one hour. Mom covers it for for the first 30 minutes with foil paper. Remove the foil for the last 15-20 minutes, so it gets nice and bubbly and forms a little crunchy crust (I swear that’s the best part!).
How do you layer baked ziti?
Depending on how your mamma or nonna taught you to make it, that’s most likely how you’ll end up layering it (see above for more details). Sometimes I combine all the ingredients together, to keep it simple. My suocera(mother-in-law) Teresa does it that way…and she tucks in some homemade mini Calabrian meatballs! Yes, that is another dreamy recipe to share here one day.Mom made this version the way an old Italian friend of hers taught her to make it.
Can I make this ziti al forno with meat sauce gluten-free?
Yes, you sure can make this gluten-free! You have to sub out the ziti for your favorite gluten-free short pasta. That is all you need to do to make this totally gluten-free.
Can I make ziti al forno dairy-free?
Yes, you can! Simply sub the ricotta, parm, and mozzarella for your favorite dairy-free cheeses.
What casserole size is best for a bake ziti?
I use a ceramic 9X13X2 inch baking dish. It never overflows. But I always put my casseroles on top of a baking sheet. It makes it much easier to take the casserole in and out without burning my hands. And since the casserole is very heavy (and super hot), it is a great way to ease it in and out of oven.
Ziti al forno recipe is a really great recipe to make ahead and store. It’s a really nice recipe to store leftovers to be reheated.
Can baked ziti be made ahead of time and frozen?
Yes, it baked ziti can be made ahead. You could assemble the whole casserole and place covered in the refrigerator. The next day, you could bake it up. Or you could freeze the whole thing. You could even place the baked ziti in two or three containers to freeze and use when you are craving Italian comfort food. A nice idea is to bake one pan up and freeze the other one for another night.
To bake ziti after freezing: Let the casserole thaw completely overnight in the refrigerator and bake following directions below.
Make Ahead Tips
Baked ziti recipes were created to be made ahead! If you use a disposable foil container, you could follow the recipe below through the final step (before you sprinkle on the final bit of cheeses). Cover the foil pan tightly with plastic wrap and foil paper and freeze until ready to bake. I would only freeze in this container for a few days (it’s not same as freezing in an airtight plastic container ).When ready to bake, uncover, sprinkle on the cheeses, and bake to cozy perfection!
How long can you keep this In the refrigerator?
Cover the ziti tightly with plastic wrap or foil or place it in an airtight storage container. Once completely cooled, store in the refrigerator for up to four days. The baked ziti can be frozen after you bake it up. To reheat, thaw completely in the refrigerator. Cover the casserole with foil paper and bake at 350ºF for 30 to 40 minutes, until warm.
What to serve with baked ziti
Serve the baked ziti with a salad and some nice crusty Italian bread.
Here are some other favorite pasta recipes from the blog:
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Ziti al Forno-Baked Ziti with Meat sauce
- For the Meat Sauce:
- 3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup of onion chopped you can use sweet onion or yellow onion
- 2 stalks celery diced
- 2 carrot diced
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 ½ pounds lean ground beef you could do a mixture of pork/beef or however you prefer
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 2-28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes I use San Marzano
- 6 fresh basil leaves
- 2 ½ teaspoons sea salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- For the Ricotta Layer:
- 2 pounds ricotta cheese
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- ½ cup grated Pecorino Romano or Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese
- 1 Tablespoon finely minced Italian parsley leaves
- Sea salt and ground black pepper
- For the Pasta:
- 16 ounces ziti penne rigate or mostaciolli pasta
- ½ cup grated Pecorino-Romano or Parmegiano Reggiano divided
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese divided
- fresh basil leaves
- MAKE THE SAUCE:
- In medium size sauce pan or a Dutch oven heat the oil on medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 2 minutes. Add the celery, carrot, and garlic and cook for 5 minutes more. Next, add the beef and sauté, stirring frequently.
- Break up any large lumps and cook until meat is no longer pink, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, parsley and basil and cook over medium low heat until the sauce thickens. Add the wine and the remaining ingredients and simmer.
- I simmer my ragu' (Bolognese sauce/meat sauce) for about 2 hours. Add additional water if necessary for desired consistency while it’s simmering to thin it out a little. You could make this a day ahead.
- MAKE THE RICOTTA FILLING:
- Place ricotta in a medium bowl. Stir in the eggs, cheeses, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste, until just combined. Refrigerate until ready to assemble.
- COOK THE PASTA:
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta and cook until not quite al dente, about 7 minutes. The pasta should be a little firm when you bite into it – and not quite cooked through. Drain the pasta and place in a large bowl. Drizzle olive oil on the pasta and give it a stir (this helps prevent it from sticking while you begin to assemble)
- ASSEMBLE THE ZITI:
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Generously grease a 9-inch x 13-inch baking dish with softened butter. Spray a 9X13 with 2-inch sides or a15X10 (4.5 quart) inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.
- Spread a layer of sauce. Arrange one portion of ziti in a single layer.
- Spoon half of the ricotta filling (add fresh basil leaves on top of the ricotta layer, if you're using) over the pasta and very carefully spread with a metal spatula to completely cover pasta.
- Spoon a layer of sauce over filling and sprinkle with 1/3 of the grated cheese.
- Repeat with another layer of ziti, ricotta filling, sauce, and cheese.
- Cover top layer with remaining ziti. Spread with a thin layer of sauce and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
- Adjust rack to center of oven.
- Place the casserole on top of a baking sheet (this makes it so much easier to put in and remove from oven). Cover with foil and bake for 25 to 30 minutes (the sauce will be bubbling under the foil and mozzarella melting on top). Remove foil paper for the last 10-15 minutes of baking, until lightly crusty on top. Carefully remove from oven and let rest for at least 10 minutes before serving.