Al Forno's Penne with Tomato, Cream, and Five Cheeses

By • April 13, 2012 49 Comments

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Author Notes: You won't meet a speedier baked pasta, not one that's this good. The recipe as written is genius, but even more genius is the fact that the technique can be reapplied in countless ways. Al Forno is always cycling in seasonal variations: thinly sliced asparagus and lemon zest, radicchio and shiitake, pumpkin and pancetta (the last of which Merrill reverse engineered and posted on FOOD52 back in 2010 -- go save her recipe now to try next fall). You also don't need to go out and buy five different hunks of cheese. This technique can work with whatever forgotten ends you have lying in the cheese drawer. Adapted very slightly from Cucina Simpatica: Robust Trattoria Cooking by Johanne Killeen & George Germon (Harper Collins, 1991)Genius Recipes

Serves 4, or 6 to 8 as an appetizer

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup chopped canned tomatoes in heavy puree
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese, (1 1/2 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup coarsely shredded (1 1/2 ounces) Fontina cheese
  • 1/4 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, (1 1/2 ounces)
  • 2 tablespoons ricotta cheese
  • 1/4 pound thinly sliced mozzarella cheese
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for pasta water
  • 6 fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 1 pound penne rigate or conchiglie rigate
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, sliced thinly
  1. Heat oven to 500 degrees F.
  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
  3. In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except the pasta and butter. Stir well to combine.
  4. Drop the pasta into the boiling water and parboil for 4 minutes. Drain in a colander and add to the ingredients in the mixing bowl, tossing to combine.
  5. Divide the pasta mixture among six to eight shallow ceramic gratin dishes (1 1/2 to 2 cups in capacity) or place in a shallow (1-inch) layer in larger baking dishes. Dot with the butter, and bake until bubbly and brown on top, 7 to 10 minutes.

More Great Recipes: Ricotta|Pasta|Appetizers|Entrees|Basil

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Comments (49) Questions (0)


about 1 month ago Alleycat

Wow - 2 cups heavy cream, 2 cups cheese and 2 oz butter, just for 4 people? I'm sure it tastes good, but heart attack city, here we come!


about 1 month ago Tricia Sacks

I don't really like putting my oven that high...has anyone tried making this recipe in a 350 or 400 degree oven? If so, how did it turn out? How long did you cook it for?



5 months ago Alexis Stranberg

I really hated this. So heavy and goupy and bland. This liquids didn't cook all of the pasta so in was uneven.


5 months ago robin lewis

Can you give a few brand names/examples of 'chopped canned tomatoes in heavy puree'? I stand and stare at all of the types of cannes/jarred ton a ties and I only ever see 'tomato puree,' which is really pureed (ie doesn't have chunks or bits of skin)...


6 months ago keg72

I agree with just about everyone -- delicious! The one change I made ingredient-wise was to add the whole 14 oz can of diced tomatoes. I baked it in one 9x13 pan, and mine took about 12 minutes to bake. Finally, I did prepare mine in the morning and then refrigerated it - I took it out of the fridge about an hour before baking it.


8 months ago Loredona

Has anyone prepared this in the morning to serve for dinner? Can you do it in advance and just bake when company arrives?


7 months ago kim

the original recipe from Al Forno says you can! http://www.prepaheadanddinein... i prepared it last night and am baking it tonight. i hope it turns out even better since it's had time to sit and absorb all the flavors.


10 months ago Eden C

My alterations/substitutions for a lighter version: Organic spelt penne pasta, greek yogurt (instead of heavy cream), and extra basil. It came out just right! Next time, I may try to add some hand-chopped tomatoes (evened out with a few extra pinches of salt), pinches of cayenne pepper, and shredded chicken :)


11 months ago Babette

FIVE CHEESES?!?! Sounds too good to be true, right? This dish was out of this world amazing! You can also mix and match the cheeses, for instance: I used parmigiano reggiano instead of romano, for i think that romano can tend to be a little to bitter for me. But none the less this was BOMBSHELL, I totally recommend. http://babetteandbuttons...


over 1 year ago strawberrygirl

This was ridiculously good. I used Parmesan instead of Romano and had to bake it for more like 15-20 minutes to get it bubbly and browned, but otherwise followed the recipe as written. It would easily serve 6 as a main course, with a salad. I might try some of the suggestions to lighten it up a bit next time, but it's so good as is that I'm perfectly happy to take the calorie hit as an occasional treat.


over 1 year ago booglix

Anyone have experience putting it together (including parboiling the pasta), taking it to someone's else's house, and baking it there? Does the pasta absorb a lot of liquid during transit?


over 1 year ago booglix

I tried this recipe years ago - Ina Garten offers the exact same one ("Penne with Five Cheeses"), though the Al Forno cookbook was published long before hers. I never have been able to understand the copyright rules for cookbooks!


over 1 year ago marlane c moffett

Ina, George and Joanne, owners of Al Forno are friends. Ina does credit them in her book.


over 1 year ago Sherry

I can't wait to try this with Trader Joes roasted pepper as a substitute for tomatoes! My son is sensitive to tomatoes so this is my go to sauce. thanks!


over 1 year ago Double Helping

I made this today with whole wheat penne. I just parboiled the pasta for a 5 minutes longer since it was whole wheat. It was great, but I live in Providence and I think I would rather eat their pasta than make my own! For some reason, it tastes better in their restaurant!


over 1 year ago sweet fang

I love to read the comments on how many ways to twist it up. I did my own twisting starting with Gluten free pasta. I had lots of shredded Trader Joe's cheese combo's so in they went. The really delicious twist was a Trader Joe's Red Pepper, eggplant and garlic spread that I tossed about 1\2 a cup of in. Also used yogurt instead of Ricotta and skipped the butter in exchange for shredded cheddar on top. I also made gluten free tiny croutons for the topping along with the shredded cheddar blend. Thank you for all the insights and of course for the original recipe. Amazing outcome. :)


over 1 year ago Beata Sadowska

500 degrees? celcius?don't think that normal owen can make this temp?


over 1 year ago Katherine

500 Degrees Fahrenheit. =) Americans typically uses Fahrenheit to measure temperature, including ovens temps.


over 1 year ago AE

I often make this but use less heavy cream than called for and it's just fine. Typically I will add more tomato sauce as I can tomatoes. Also, I don't make this in individual gratin dishes but a large Le Creuset pot. And I cook the pasta a bit longer than the 4 minute parboil indicated; that never seems sufficient to me. Still, it's a superb dish.


almost 2 years ago NatWhit

This recipe is completely amazing. My parents bought this cookbook 20 years ago, and it's a family favorite. This is definitely the most requested recipe!


almost 2 years ago LLStone

I also threw in some goat cheese that I had in the fridge, and used low-fat cottage cheese, and buttermilk. I added cayenne, and topped it w/ some panko. It was a great dish, with a big salad on the side.


almost 2 years ago BellaRasa

I made this last night for a neighborhood potluck and it was a big hit. As if 5 cheeses was not enough, I had a little goat cheese in the fridge and threw that in as well. The only other change, I added some red pepper flakes. Great recipe!


about 2 years ago sdschorr

I agree on following the recipe exactly (something I NEVER do)--it's completely flawless, and the gorgonzola just adds depth, no distinct flavor. My non-professional oven never truly reaches 500, so a more realistic baking time for us common folk is about 20 minutes--you want it to be brown and bubbling on top. For those of you who hate messing with last minute prep when you have company over, this largely can be prepared ahead. I put together all the ingredients (EXCEPT the fresh basil and pasta) in a sealed container and refrigerate, about 3 hours before dinner. While par-boiling the pasta, chop the fresh basil. When pasta is ready (again, follow the instructions, 3-4 minutes is plenty), mix it all together and immediately put in oven. This is one of those dishes that's best when you serve within 5 minutes of pulling it out of the oven, so consider that in your timing.


over 2 years ago KtMcB

I followed the recipe exactly (very unusual for me!) as I was bringing it to a small dinner party. I prepared it at home and put it in friends oven for 10 min and was a big hit. parboiling pasta for 4 min then baking for 10 was just right.


over 2 years ago java&foam

Everyone at my house swore up and down this was the best mac and cheese type dish they have ever eaten. People kept going in for more long after they said they were full! The blue cheese mellows and adds wonderful depth...even picky kids will love it.


over 2 years ago ChefJune

June is a trusted source on General Cooking.

I have had that book for years. Why haven't I made this before? Silly me!


over 2 years ago cutthecarrot

I made this original way and was enchanted. The second time, I used half and half instead of cream, whole wheat rotini, and a jar of red pepper spread/relish (from Trader Joe's) instead of the tomatoes. It worked so well! It is nice to know it can be lightened and a little whole grain action can be added with delicious and consistent results.


almost 3 years ago dmass

Wow! Delicious! I can't find the right words to describe how tasty this was.

The only changes I made was I used fresh tomatoes from the garden and I didn't quite have 1/4 lb of mozzarella. I did cook mine a little longer than what was noted in the recipe. I can't wait to make it again!


almost 3 years ago MsJoanie

I must have mis-judged my cheese quantities because I found this a little soupy, so I think I'll back off on the cream next time... I also used fresh tomatoes because I've got lots from the garden right now. Ran one large brandywine through the food mill to get puree and finely chopped another. Also added chunks of natural, uncured deli ham, which totally rocked! Should have added some garlic, but I'll remember that next time. I don't know how they think this only feeds four people. I baked this in a 9x13 casserole and it could easily feed 8-10 people with a salad. Mine also took more than 25 minutes to cook, but again, I think I must have misjudged the amount of cheese.


about 3 years ago IRONWOOD CHEF

There have been a number of comments referring to the "unhealthy" aspect of this dish. While the 5 cheeses may mean that it will always be rather "calorie dense", I have lightened it considerably in each of two versions: (1) I ditched the butter, used part-skim mozzarella for one of the cheeses, and substituted 1 cup 2% evaporated milk and 1 cup 2% milk plus a beaten egg for the heavy cream; (2) same as above, but substituted 1 cup no-fat "cream" (which we are now able to buy here) and 1 cup 0% Greek yogurt for the heavy cream. Both were good, but the second was better.


about 3 years ago tylermmcdon

This was extremely heavy but of course delicious. I substituted Gruyere for fontina. Yum!


about 3 years ago zoemetro uk

I made this exactly as written last night and it was divine. Hats of to Al Forno--they never disappoint. We also love their roasted sausage and grapes!!


over 2 years ago michelle_brown

That is ironic - those are the two recipes we love too. The roasted grapes and sausage are perfect. This dish is easy and yummy!


over 2 years ago zoemetro uk

I made this again yesterday for my son's ninth birthday. It was such a hit. We definitely need to get their book!


about 3 years ago ellenu

That was absurdly good. I just used cheese on hand--fresh ricotta, provolone, mozzarella, even cheddar--and only had 1 cup of heavy cream. added a bit of 2% milk and also left out butter. This was so wonderful, so easy.


over 3 years ago Zenqi

P.S. I will also leave the butter out next time. I see no benefit from it - only extra calories.


over 3 years ago Zenqi

Oh, wow. I'm SO full. Was that ever rich and tasty. Okay, I made alterations, too. I used whatever bits of cheese I had in the cheese drawer, plus smoked mozarella, romano & ricotta. I used the full 14.5 oz. can of Muir Glen diced tomatoes, added crushed garlic (I just couldn't resist), added grape tomatoes (to pretend there's a healthy factor to this recipe). The garlic in it was excellent. Oh, I also used 1/2 whole wheat penne & 1/2 regular. I started the whole wheat about 1 minute before the regular. I kept wanting to squeeze a lemon in it, but I didn't. I think my intuition was right. Next time, I will. I'll also add quite a bit more basil next time and skip the smoked mozzarella (a bit over powering) but I'd use the Muir Glen roasted tomatoes. It turned out WAY too good. I think it should be served with an exercise routine next to the plate. ;)


over 3 years ago AJouve

This recipe seems to welcome modifications and, as usual, I took full advantage of just what I had on hand. Of course, I changed the cheese to just what I had chunks of (including some low fat swiss) but also used greek yogurt in place of ricotta, fresh, chopped tomatoes for the canned, and lastly left off the extra butter on top. It was still amazingly delicious, comforting, and insanely easy. I am usually a more health-conscious cook but this recipe will be a definite keeper.


over 3 years ago gothamista

This was terrific. I threw caution and calorie-counting to the wind and used quite a bit more cheese than called for because, well, I had a bunch left over from other cooking (used ricotta freshly made from Jennifer Perillo's recipe here on Food 52, provolone, Pecorino, mozzarella, and Swiss). I baked it in 2 largish dishes for more like 15 minutes and it came out beautifully.


over 3 years ago Sf2oak

I just made this with major modifications. Used 1-28 oz can of plum tomatoes whizzed up in blender. Maybe 1 cu whipping cream. Feta, havarti, mozz, parm. 1 bag frozen spinach, thawed & drained. Turned out well for a 20 min dish. I would not sprinkle parm on top again, it just lays there.
Has anyone made this w/ whole wheat pasta?


over 3 years ago irinaleibo

This was great. I had some leftover Boursin cheese and threw that in too! I did use
regular 1/2 & 1/2 and it was fine.


over 3 years ago rederin

Ok, well this is freaking delicious. I didn't have all the right kind of cheeses, so I played around with it, successfully, I might add. I see that people are freaking out a bit about the fat. I will say, neither myself nor my husband have shy appetites, and the full dish made 8 servings for us. I just served it with a plain arugula salad, which complimented it well. I did double the tomatoes (used fire-roasted) and used a bit less cream. Totally worth it. And so easy! Oh, and I put maybe half the butter on top. I bet this would also be great with spinach.


over 3 years ago darksideofthespoon

Made this on Sunday and didn't change a thing. I think my heart almost stopped from all the cream, cheese and butter but it was well worth the coronary. I will definitely make this again, maybe just not so soon. ;)


about 3 years ago darksideofthespoon

I want this again soo badly but we're on a diet now. Boourns!!!


over 3 years ago hothead


What brand of canned tomatoes with heavy puree did you use in this recipe. I've never seen tomatoes in a can with heavy puree. Thanks


over 3 years ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Executive Editor of Food52

We used a cup of Muir Glen canned diced tomatoes, including some of the thick juices from the can. (And by the way, if you're using a 14.5oz can and have some left over that you don't know what to do with, feel free to just add them in too!).


over 3 years ago serendipity2425

This sounds beyond fabulous. But, yeah, all that fat gives me pause. Any of 52's testers tried using fat-free half & half?? Think I could live with that!


over 3 years ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Executive Editor of Food52

Hi serendipity2425 -- haven't tried that. We're all about the real cream (in moderation) here. But check out the comments thread on the blog post for some cool ideas for lightening up the sauce while still using this technique (swapping out some of the cream for more tomatoes, for example):


over 3 years ago Keely bee

I found this recipe about 10 years ago on Martha Stewart's website and have made it many times, everyone loves it!