This Rigatoni al Forno recipe (baked rigatoni) is an Italian comfort food staple. Everyone has their favorite version of it. There’s no right or wrong. Make it the way you like it. But there’s one thing everybody agrees upon:
Just like lasagne al forno or any pasta al forno, the secret to success happens before the dish sees the oven: It’s all about taking time to make the sauce.
There’s something magical that happens when we enjoy pasta al forno in an Italian family restaurant. It tastes better, and at the same time, it tastes simpler. No fancy ingredients are used, just a perfectly seasoned tomato-based sauce, with perfectly cooked and then baked pasta. It’s perfect as it is.
To achieve this, you need to have patience. A thick, tomato-based sauce needs time to develop. It’s not about heating a can of marinara sauce on the stovetop and calling it a day. A tomato sauce that will be mixed with meat, cheese and maybe topped with Bechamel sauce and then more cheese, needs to simmer for a while…for quite a while. I’d say 30 minutes minimum. An hour or more is even better.
That might sound straightforward and simple, but there are a couple of things to consider so you don’t end up with a pan that will have to be soaked overnight and then scrubbed for 15 minutes the next day:
Keep stirring, my friends. The heat source is directly underneath the pan. The bottom gets hot. Your sauce might simmer along nicely on the surface, but the bottom is getting hot and dry, solid foods start to stick to it, and it will ultimately burn. Therefore, every 5 minutes or so, gently stir the sauce back under the solids to ensure that the liquid gets mixed in with everything else. If using whole plum tomatoes, occasionally use your tongs to break up the remaining chunks.
Simmering a sauce for 30 minutes or more is also a perfect way to learn how food texture and flavor change over time. Taste a few times to see how the onions are getting softer and sweeter. And how the plum tomatoes are slowly disintegrating. If the sauce is getting a little drier than you’d like, add some water or stock. If it’s too runny, slightly turn up the heat or let it simmer until it has reached the desired thickness.
How To Make Rigatoni al Forno
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in a skillet, over medium heat. Add the ground beef. With a wooden spoon, break apart any clumps. Season with 1/2 tsp kosher salt and 1/2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper.
After browning the ground beef for about 5 minutes, add the chopped onions and mix. Cook for another 5 minutes, until the ground beef has nicely browned and the onions become translucent.
Add the minced garlic for just a minute. Add the whole can of plum tomatoes (including any juices) and 3 oz of tomato paste. Bring to a simmer. Stir regularly and use tongs to help break apart the plum tomatoes.
In between stirring the sauce, finely grate 4 oz Pecorino Romano. Cut 8 oz mozzarella into 1/2“ cubes.
Keep simmering and stirring the pot — smell, taste. Be careful with the salt. If it tastes just slightly under-salted, that’s perfect. The salty Pecorino Romano will close that gap when added before baking.
In the meantime, bring a pot of salted water to boil, add 8 oz rigatoni, and cook. Before draining the pasta, scoop out 1/4 c of the pasta water and add to the sauce.
Tip: When you pre-cook pasta and then bake in a casserole, the pasta will continue to soften while baking. A good rule of thumb is to cook the pasta for 2 minutes less than the package says (e.g., 10 minutes instead of 12 minutes), then rinse under cold water for 30 seconds. This will stop the pasta from getting softer. It’s all about controlling the cooking process.
Now we’re ready to put everything together and finish cooking in the oven. If you made the sauce in an oven-safe skillet (one less dish to wash 🙂 ), add the grated Pecorino Romano cheese and the cooked pasta. Mix well. Top with cubed mozzarella and in the oven it goes. Bake for 30 minutes.
Otherwise, transfer the sauce to a baking dish and mix everything as above.
To overcome the agonizing wait for the pasta al forno to finish baking, start cleaning up the kitchen, do some dishes, and pour yourself a glass of Italian red wine.
Once it’s ready to serve, remove from the oven and start heaping it on plates. Garnish with some roughly chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley. There’s your Tricolore 🇮🇹
Which pasta shape is best to use for pasta al forno?
Your favorite. But otherwise, rigatoni is the most versatile pasta shape. Rigatoni (meaning ridged) will make any sauce cling to it. It shines in baked pasta dishes (pasta al forno). It’s also substantial enough to get a nice crusty edge when exposed on top of a casserole.
Penne is similar to rigatoni. Also tubular and lined on the outside. It’s my second choice for any baked pasta dish. It’s a little less “substantial” than rigatoni.
What cheese combination is best and why?
When combining cheeses, look for flavor and texture complementation. Pecorino Romano is a salty hard cheese (made from sheep’s milk) that adds just that extra bite without being overwhelming.
Because it’s a hard cheese, it’s not the best melting cheese. That’s why when using a hard cheese in a pasta al forno dish, finely grate the cheese so it won’t leave any clumps in the sauce by not melting enough. You can substitute Pecorino Romano with Parmigiano Reggiano. Or you can mix the two.
Tip: I highly recommend not using pre-shredded cheese. Pre-shredded cheese comes with additives and preservatives that prevent the cheese from getting hard. Unfortunately, they also prevent the cheese from melting smoothly.
When it comes to melting cheese on top, fresh mozzarella cheese is my #1 choice. It melts deliciously, doesn’t add any more saltiness, and will make these long gooey cheese strings between the plate and your mouth. A gooey, fresh mozzarella, perfectly baked, should be able to keep it together for longer than your arm can reach up.
Remember that perfect pizza you had. You take a bite and try to put the slice back on the plate, but the cheese won’t disconnect between your mouth and slice. You start stretching the slice of pizza away from your body. You reach the end of your stretch and the cheese is still connected. That’s good mozzarella. Don’t forget that with mozzarella: you get what you pay for.
If you’re not into mozzarella like we are, try Gouda, provolone, or fontina. Or experiment with something different.
What kind of meat works best?
Again, that’s a question of personal preference. I mostly use ground beef. Sometimes I mix ground beef with ground pork. Using sweet Italian sausage is also delicious. And if you feel like kicking it up a notch, go with hot Italian sausage.
Pasta al Forno Vegetarian
No problem. Instead of using meat, use eggplant or mushrooms. If you want to enjoy a basic pasta al forno, leave the meat out, and add more mozzarella and a whole bunch of roughly chopped fresh basil.
Fresh or canned tomatoes?
That’s a tough one. We grow our own tomatoes. So we cook everything with fresh tomatoes anywhere from the end of June until the end of August. For the rest of the year, it’s canned tomatoes. To keep the pantry simple, I use canned San Marzano whole plum tomatoes. You can make any tomato-based sauce using whole plum tomatoes. To increase the flavor, tomato paste and/or anchovy paste are other pantry staples.
Saving the pasta water
Every good pasta sauce has one ingredient we often neglect: pasta water. It starts with salting the water with enough salt that it tastes like the sea. Well, not really. But under-salted pasta water will turn out flat-tasting pasta that no sauce or cheese can perk back up.
There are guidelines online that tell you how many tablespoons per gallon to achieve the desired salinity. There’s one problem with that. Every salt adds a different amount of saltiness. Diamond kosher salt is different from Maldon salt and so on. While the pasta is cooking, the water will absorb the starch from the pasta to make a tasty liquid (we like to call it liquid gold). Adding a 1/4 c or so of this water to a sauce will not only season the sauce, but also help the sauce stick to the pasta better.
Tip: It happens to all of us. We’re planning to use pasta water as part of the sauce, only to rush to drain the pasta and suddenly…. yup, there goes the pasta water down the drain. Here’s a neat trick for all of us not-so-perfect cooks: before you start cooking, place the pasta strainer or colander on top of a bowl in the sink. That way, when you’re ready to drain the pasta (and forget to save the pasta water), the bowl will catch it for you. You can also just put a measuring cup on the bottom of the colander. That’ll work fine too.
Tasting while cooking
Tasting while cooking is the holy grail of achieving a great result. In most cases, it’s a straightforward process. While cooking, there are good times to taste and to decide if a dish needs more salt. Salt is what brings out the flavors, makes them more prominent. It’s vital when creating a rich yet subtly flavored sauce like this one. Sometimes it can be hard to figure out the right amount of salt to add. An excellent trick I learned from the book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat works like magic:
Put a little bit of sauce on a spoon and taste it. Again, put a little bit of sauce on the spoon. But this time, add a tiny sprinkle of salt. Is it tastier this time? No? Serve. Yes? Add some salt to the pan and try again. Repeat as necessary. From now on, your soups, stews, and sauces will always be perfectly salted. Thank you, Samin!
Can I make the sauce in advance?
Yes, you can make a large batch and put it in the freezer. Thaw it, mix in the grated cheese and cooked pasta, sprinkle mozzarella on top, and bake in the oven for 10 minutes longer because the pasta sauce will be cold.
How to reheat pasta al forno?
Oven-baked dishes should be reheated in the oven, not in the microwave. Reheat in the toaster oven for 10 minutes at 300°F. Just like lasagne al forno or rigatoni al forno, anything al forno tastes better the second day. Or the third.
Looking for more delicious pasta dinner ideas? Check out a few more of our recipes now:
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- Homemade Spinach Ricotta Ravioli with Sage Butter Sauce
- Baked Ziti with Ricotta and Italian Sausage
- Linguine with clams – Linguine alle Vongole
- Shrimp Scampi with Garlic and Lemon
- 4 Ingredient Cacio e Pepe
- Shrimp Fettuccine Alfredo
- One Pot Sausage Meatballs with Pasta
- Butternut Squash Pasta
- Snappy Shrimp, Hot Pepper Flakes, and Garlic Breath
- Lasagne al Forno with Bolognese and Béchamel Sauce
- One Pan Pasta from Your Pantry and Two Fresh Ingredients
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Rigatoni al Forno
- 1 lb ground beef
- 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small yellow onion (1 cup)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced (1 Tbsp)
- 28-oz can whole San Marzano plum tomatoes
- 3 oz tomato paste
- 8 oz fresh mozzarella cheese, cubed
- 4 oz Pecoroni Romano, grated
- 8 oz rigatoni
- 1/4 c pasta water
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
- 2 Tbsp fresh Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in a skillet.
- Add the ground beef. With a wooden spoon, break apart any clumps. Season with 1/2 tsp kosher salt and 1/2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper.
- After browning the ground beef for about 5 minutes over medium heat, add the chopped onions and mix. Cook for another 5 minutes, until the ground beef has nicely browned and the onions become translucent.
- Add the minced garlic for just a minute.
- Add the whole can of plum tomatoes (including any juices) and 3 oz of tomato paste. Bring to a simmer. Stir regularly and use tongs to help break apart the plum tomatoes.
- In between stirring the sauce, finely grate 4 oz Pecorino Romano and cut 8 oz mozzarella into 1/2“ cubes.
- Keep simmering and stirring the pot — smell, taste. Be careful with the salt. If it tastes just slightly under-salted, that’s perfect. The salty Pecorino Romano will close that gap when added before baking.
- In the meantime, bring a pot of salted water to boil, add 8 oz rigatoni, and cook. Before draining the pasta, scoop out 1/4 c of the pasta water and add to the sauce.
- Now we’re ready to put everything together and finish cooking in the oven. If you made the sauce in an oven-safe skillet, add the grated Pecorino Romano cheese and the cooked pasta. Mix well. Top with cubed mozzarella and in the oven it goes. Bake for 30 minutes. Otherwise, transfer the sauce to a baking dish, mix everything as above, and bake.
- Once it’s ready to serve, remove from the oven and start heaping it on plates. Garnish with some roughly chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley.
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