For this classic baked pasta dish, I am using rigatoni instead of ziti. Rigatoni tends to be sturdier when cooked and its ridges hold more sauce and cheese. Use whatever tubular-shaped pasta you prefer. You will end up with a delicious meal that can make a crowd happy.
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 large onion, minced
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 pound Italian sausage, bulk or casings removed
- 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes or “chunky-style” crushed tomatoes*
- 1 teaspoon salt, or more
- 1 teaspoon sugar, or more
- Ground pepper, to taste
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 1 pound ziti, rigatoni, or penne
- 1 pound ricotta cheese
- ¾ pound mozzarella cheese, grated or cut into small cubes
- 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
*Using whole peeled tomatoes gives the sauce a great flavor and body. Crush them into chunks either by hand or in the pan.
- Make the marinara sauce: Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and garlic, sauté until softened for about 2 minutes. Add pepper flakes and tomato paste, cook until it turns brownish for about 2 minutes. Add the sausage and break it up until the meat has slightly browned (cooking it well before adding the sauce gives it a good flavor). Lower the heat to medium. Add the cans of tomatoes (if using whole tomatoes, crush into chunks), salt, sugar, pepper, and bay leaves. Mix it up and let it simmer for about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally. Taste and adjust to your liking – you may need to add more salt or sugar. If you feel that the mixture is too thick, add some pasta water starting with half a cup. Pluck out the bay leaves. Save about a cup of the marinara sauce.
- Cook the pasta: Cook the pasta in a pot of salted boiling water. Undercook by 3 minutes. It will continue to cook in the oven. Save about a cup of pasta water. Drain.
- Preheat the oven to 425° Fahrenheit.
- Assemble: Combine the pasta and the marinara sauce. In a 3-quart baking dish (I used an 8x12-inch), place half of the pasta mixture on the bottom and add half of the ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan cheese across the top. Repeat with the remaining pasta and cheeses. Top with the reserved marinara sauce.
- Bake: Place the baking dish on a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes. Place it under the broiler for about 5 minutes to get a nicely browned top. Watch it carefully so it doesn’t burn. Let it rest for a few minutes before digging in. Enjoy!