It's pasta time! Whenever I am looking for a recipe that will leave my family or dinner guests satisfied, I turn to pasta. Pasta makes just about everyone feel at home. There is nothing more comforting than nestling into a bowl of hot pasta. Picture it: steam rises from the noodles. Melted cheese strings from your fork. Each bite hugs you and lovingly coaxes you to take one more bite. My recipe for Pasta al Forno will satisfy your hunger while tugging at your heartstrings.
I begin this easy Pasta al Forno recipe with a classic pasta sauce: sautéed soffritto (defined below), ground beef and Italian sausage, tomatoes, and Italian herbs slowly stewed on the stove. A surprising dash of allspice and balsamic vinegar amp up the flavor of this decadent meat sauce.
I mix the pasta sauce with cooked rigatoni pasta and I pour everything into a casserole dish. With a sprinkle of shredded mozzarella and parmesan cheese, the pasta goes into a hot oven until the cheese is bubbly. The result is the most heartwarming plate of pasta you have ever had. You will want seconds - and possibly thirds.
What Is Pasta al Forno?
Most of you are familiar with pasta, but what does "al forno" mean?
In Italian, "al Forno" simply means "baked." So, this is a recipe for pasta baked in the oven.
Why are we not calling this recipe Rigatoni/Pasta Bolognese?
Yes, Bolognese is a meat sauce that is eaten with pasta. And yes, the method of preparation is fairly similar (start with a soffritto, add meat, add tomatoes, add herbs). However, this recipe is not a Bolognese for a few reasons:
- We don't typically bake pasta Bolognese in the oven. Therefore, it is not considered "al forno."
- Traditionally, Bolognese is a more creamy sauce - as in, it often incorporates cream or milk into the sauce to add richness.
- Bolognese isn't traditionally as tomato-forward as this pasta al forno.
Why Use Rigatoni?
To be honest, you can use just about any pasta to make this dish. If you only have ziti or penne in your pantry, you can definitely use them. Just be sure to adjust your pasta cook time per the instructions on the pasta box.
I like to use rigatoni in this recipe because rigatoni has:
- A large, cylindrical shape - very hearty!
- Ridges on the exterior - a great vessel for sauce.
Rigatoni Vs. Ziti
Rigatoni and ziti are very similar to one another. They both have a cylindrical shape. Both types of pasta have ridges on their exterior, although you can find ziti without ridges, as well. Rigatoni is always ridged - the word actually comes from the Italian word, "rigato," which means "ridged."
Another difference is that ziti is typically longer and slightly thinner than rigatoni.
Rigatoni Vs. Penne
Rigatoni and penne are less similar than one another. Penne is usually longer and thinner than rigatoni. In fact, ziti and penne are more similar in length. Penne also has a tubular shape and ridges, but like ziti, penne can be found with and without ridges.
Penne is also cut at an angle. You can see the difference in shape and size among rigatoni, ziti, and penne in the image below. To be honest, though, any of these three pastas would work well in pasta al forno. I recommend using a pasta with ridges, though. Ridges are great for encouraging pasta sauce to adhere to the noodles.
What Is Soffritto?
Above, I mention that this recipe begins with a soffritto. Sounds fancy, right? Fear not, the name sounds fancy, but the ingredients couldn't be more simple.
A soffritto is a trio of aromatics cooked in oil or butter that form the base of many Italian sauces, soups, and dishes. The French mirepoix is comparable to a soffritto. Both contain a trio of classic aromatic vegetables: onion, carrots, and celery. The Cajun version of a soffritto/mirepoix is the Holy Trinity. In the Holy Trinity, green bell peppers replace the carrots. I go into detail about the Holy Trinity in my blog for my Creamy Cajun Chicken Pasta with Andouille Sausage recipe.
Back to Italy! A soffritto is chopped to different consistencies, depending on its usage. Soffritto is usually diced or minced much more finely than its French counterpart, mirepoix.
In this recipe, I use a food processor or a box grater to finely mince the onion, carrots, and celery. Mincing the ingredients and then sautéing them in a skillet with some olive oil and garlic will yield a smooth, almost pulp-like consistency. The result? A delicious, aromatic base that effortlessly melts into the sauce.
Variations on this Recipe
There are many ways you can tweak this recipe to accommodate any dietary restrictions you may have.
Make it Vegetarian
If you or someone you are feeding is a vegetarian, this recipe lends itself to several vegetarian options:
- Eliminate the meat completely
- Use a meat substitute
- Replace the meat with chopped Portobello mushrooms
Make it Low Carb
A low carb pasta dish?! Believe it or not, this recipe can be made low carb:
- Substitute the noodles for a low carb noodle of your choice. Some options include zoodles (zucchini noodles) or Palmini noodles (noodles made from hearts of palm - YUM). You could even make your own low carb noodles from scratch!
- Eliminate the noodles completely and add more vegetables and meat - mushrooms would be a great ingredient to add body to the recipe without adding additional carbs.
Make it Low Fat
Low fat doesn't have to mean low flavor! You can use these swaps to make your pasta al forno low fat:
- Use ground turkey and less sausage to lower the fat content of the meat.
- Sprinkle the pasta with low fat or fat free mozzarella cheese before baking it.
Make it Gluten Free
This one is a no brainer - just use gluten free pasta! Barilla makes an awesome gluten free penne pasta that could be swapped for normal pasta in this recipe.
All of my posts contain my recommendations for essential tools. I have researched these tools. Many of them are already in my kitchen. The ones that are not come highly rated. I do the research so you don’t have to and I only recommend high-quality tools.
If you are just starting to furnish your kitchen with tools or if you are looking to expand your kitchen toolkit, be sure to reference Expert Guide: Equip Your Kitchen for Less Than $200. This guide contains links to all of the equipment items I recommend for a basic kitchen set up.
My essential tools when making this pasta al forno recipe include the following:
Pasta Al Forno
- 1 tablespoon olive oil extra virgin
- 1 medium yellow onion peeled and grated/processed in food processor
- 2 large carrots peeled and grated/processed in food processor
- 3 stalks celery grated/processed in food processor
- 2 cloves garlic grated/processed in food processor
- 1 lb. ground beef
- 1 lb. sweet Italian sausage ground or removed from casings
- 14 oz. canned tomato puree
- 14 oz. canned crushed tomatoes
- 2 tbsp. tomato paste
- ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
- 2 tbsp. oregano dried
- 1 tbsp. thyme leaves dried
- 1 tbsp. parsley dried
- 1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes optional
- 1 tsp. all spice ground
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 tsp. kosher salt
- 2 tsp. black pepper coarsely ground
- 1 lb. pasta rigatoni, ziti, or penne would be best
- 2 tbsp. salt to season pasta water
- 8 oz. mozzarella cheese shredded
- 2 oz. parmesan cheese shredded
- Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.
- Prepare a 9x13 inch casserole dish by spraying with cooking spray.
Make the Pasta Sauce
- In a large cast skillet set to medium high, heat extra virgin olive oil for about 1 minute. Add grated onion, carrots, celery, and garlic. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is dry and translucent.
- Add ground beef and sausage, using a wooden spoon to break up the large pieces of meat. Brown the meat, about 7 minutes.
- Add the tomato puree, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, oregano, thyme, parsley, red pepper flakes, all spice, bay leaves, salt and pepper.
- Stir, bring sauce to a boil and then reduce to a simmer on medium low heat.
- Continue to simmer sauce while the pasta cooks, about 15 minutes.
Cook the Pasta
- While the sauce is simmering, bring a large pot of water to a boil.
- Add pasta and 2 tbsp. salt to the boiling water, and cook the pasta according to package instructions.
- Drain the pasta and return noodles to the pot in which they were cooked.
Stir in the Sauce
- Remove the bay leaves from the sauce when it is done simmering and the pasta is fully cooked.
- Add meat sauce to cooked noodles. Stir to combine.
Prepare the Casserole
- Pour sauced noodles into the prepared casserole dish.
- Sprinkle the noodles with shredded mozzarella cheese and parmesan cheese.
- Bake at 350°F/175°C until cheese is bubbly and slightly browned, about 20 minutes.
- Remove from oven and let stand for 5-10 minutes before serving. Enjoy!