Weeknight Cooking

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

April 13, 2012

Every week, FOOD52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: A baked pasta that's full of surprises, plus a noble new destination for the forgotten bits in the cheese drawer.

Pasta Al Forno

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- Kristen

You won't meet a speedier baked pasta, not one this good.

The recipe comes from a couple of former artists -- she a photographer, he a sculptor -- who, on the eve of opening their first restaurant in 1980, felt inspired to add baked pastas to their menu after seeing one in a smoky photo in an old Gourmet magazine.

johanne killeen & george germon  cucina simpatica

The couple was Johanne Killeen and George Germon and the restaurant was Providence, Rhode Island's Al Forno, whose name essentially translates to "from the oven". This is exactly what they would come to be famous for: food fired at brazen temperatures, like this pasta and grilled pizza (a technique that -- as the story goes -- Germon introduced to the United States, by accident).


While grilling pizza is by now a widely known technique (and rightly so), Al Forno's pasta method isn't in enough cooks' back pockets just yet.

It's time: because once you know about it, you'll never shy away from inviting company for dinner; never wonder what to make to cheer someone up; never go out seeking solace in shoddy takeout, when comfort is right in your pantry (and cheese drawer).

grating cheesecheeses

Here's how it comes together: gather your cheeses; mix them into a slurry with canned tomatoes, basil, and a pint of cream in a big bowl. Boil a pound of pasta briefly, then drain and add that in too.

Pasta Al Forno

Then portion the whole mess into whatever shallow baking vessels you have, scatter some butter shavings across the top, and roast in a 500 degree oven for oh, about 10 minutes.

The first time you make it, you won't trust it (I didn't). The sauce, at first, looks thin and sketchy. It seems your poor penne will be undercooked (it's only boiled for 4 minutes out of an alleged 13). You will wonder if eating all that cream and cheese is wise, and why five different cheeses needed to get involved.

baked pasta assembly

You needn't worry. During that brief time in the hot oven, the cream will bubble up to just barely finish cooking the pasta, travelling up the tubes and into the crevices, to be trapped until you pick up a forkful and hot cream spurts out under your teeth. Al Forno uses penne and conchiglie rigate interchangeably -- both are good vehicles for cream delivery.

dotting with butter

Meanwhile, the uppermost noodles poke up like periscopes. They'll stay a little chewy and the tips will singe to a crisp. You wouldn't want to eat a whole pan full of burnt pasta ends, but here they're the most precious, sought-after bits.

Pasta Al Forno

All those cheeses you questioned melt into a rich but nuanced sauce -- except for the slices of fresh mozzarella. They stay behind in little patches of molten goo that, once disturbed, leave behind stringy trails as you twirl them up. Full of surprises, this pasta.

You could swap tomato puree for the diced ones, but it's nice to keep the cream barely tinted with tomato. And left whole, the bright clumps of tomato are points of relief that renew your hunger for more cream.

dirty dishes

This recipe, as written, is genius for all of the reasons listed above. It's fast, thrilling, and delicious. But even more genius is the fact that the technique can be reapplied in countless ways.

There are eight slightly different versions of the recipe in Killeen and Germon's first cookbook Cucina Simpatica alone, and 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 -- save her recipe now to try next fall).

Here's one last secret: You don't really need to go out and buy five new cheeses. Once you've got it down, this technique can also work with whatever forgotten ends you have lying in the cheese drawer. And what a noble new destination for them.

Pasta Al Forno

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

Adapted very slightly from Cucina Simpatica: Robust Trattoria Cooking by Johanne Killeen & George Germon (Harper Collins, 1991)

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
Fontina cheese (1 1/2 ounces)
1/4 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese (1 1/2 ounces)
2 tablespoons ricotta cheese
1/4 pound thinly sliced fresh 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

See a slideshow and the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].


Photos by James Ransom


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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Jenna @ DeliciousDaydreams.com
    Jenna @ DeliciousDaydreams.com
  • Mlouise
  • Milissa
  • Bill Crane
    Bill Crane
  • Jann
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Jenna @. November 14, 2013
I'm in love.
Mlouise January 25, 2013
Pecorino Romano, Fontina, Gorgonzola and ricotta....but there is flexibility such as Parmesan rather than Romano or something similar to the fontina.
Milissa January 25, 2013
I am away. Can someone who owns Cocina simpatica tell me what cheeses go into the baked penne pasta with rapini? Per favore.
Bill C. May 18, 2012
I made this last night with wonderful results. I live and cook in Colorado at 6,000 feet, so I had to make a few adjustments with the time. I increased the boiling time on the pasta from 4 to 8 minutes. Instead of separate smaller dishes I finished it in the oven in one large rectangular pan, and it baked for 18 minutes until the pasta was done. During the baking, at the 10 and 15 minute mark, I gave it a good stir to keep the top part from browning excessively before the pasta had a chance to cook. Most importantly though, this is delicious and another winner in the list of genius recipes. I will definitely prepare this again.
Pam H. July 11, 2016
Thanks for the tips for higher elevation cooking!
Mlouise May 2, 2012
One of my favorites, both at home and at their brilliant restaurant. CUCINA SIMPATICA and their second cookbook, ON TOP OF SPAGHETTI deserve shelf space in every cook 's library .
Jann April 28, 2012
This recipe is one of the easiest pastas you can make AND my family said it was over the top great! Wouldn't change a thing! With homemade yeasty garlic rolls and a catch-all salad, you cannot go wrong. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Queen M. April 27, 2012
Oh wow, this really was good. I added leftover cooked chicken (about 4 cups). I wound up with enough to feed my family of 6 twice. Next time I think I'll add some raw spinach, as well. My whole family liked this--a rare feat--though they did say it needed a little more salt. Question: What is a good substitute for gorgonzola? I don't care for blue cheese, and my kids will not eat feta (my usual sub) if it has been cooked. For today, I doubled the ricotta to compensate for the gorgonzola.
Kristen M. May 3, 2012
Queen Mab, sorry for the delayed response. Because there's only 2 tablespoons of gorgonzola, it's not a very noticeable presence -- you might like the recipe as written, especially if you use a mild gorgonzola dolce.

But check out this full comments thread and the one on the recipe too -- it sounds like people have used all sorts of cheese combinations with success since we posted the recipe.
KirbysDad April 26, 2012
Can this be frozen after it's been baked? I made it in two smaller pans and would like to freeze one. Thanks.
Kristen M. April 26, 2012
I haven't tried it myself, but I've heard that it freezes well. Let us know how it works for you!
rocrow29 April 23, 2012
LeBec F. April 20, 2012
We actually had this dish at a book signing for this book at Michela's in Cambridge 20 odd years ago when the book came out! Thanks to the 52 feature, we finally got to make this tonight. My experiences:
--The more cooked it is, the more crunchy, the better. 20 minutes maybe
-- We needed some oomph. At one end of the casserole we tried sauteed sliced shiitakes and bacon, and that did it for us, and we both said swiss chard next time.
-- needed S and P
-- delish
thx so much!
Katie S. April 19, 2012
Love this technique.....so much simpler than bothering with a cheese sauce and then baking it.
Tatanka April 18, 2012
Amazing recipe! Just don't eat too much, which is hard not to do since it is so flavorful, it's scrumptious. Made it using cheddar, bucheron, manchego, and probably some gruyere, since all I could see was some Germanic language on the rind. I cooked it in a pyrex pan with 3 cups of cream to get the level of cream a bit higher from where it was (only 2/3 of the noodles were covered) and had to cook it for 20 minutes instead of the recommended time for ceramic bowls.
Tatanka April 18, 2012
Amazing recipe! Just don't eat too much, which is hard not to do since it is so flavorful, it's scrumptious. Made it using cheddar, bucheron, manchego, and probably some gruyere, since all I could see was some Germanic language on the rind. I cooked it in a pyrex pan with 3 cups of cream to get the level of cream a bit higher from where it was (only 2/3 of the noodles were covered) and had to cook it for 20 minutes instead of the recommended time for ceramic bowls.
LisaCooks April 18, 2012
I went to college in Providence and a trip to Al Forno was always saved for special occasions. I agree--Al Forno is just incredibly good food.
Clairelivia April 16, 2012
I just made it, and it's just so heavy. I love cream but it's too much
Kristen M. April 17, 2012
Sorry to hear that -- we all loved it, but for those who want something lighter, some of the responses below give great ideas for lightening the sauce while still using this technique.
Shoubi April 16, 2012
Love it! I've made similar baked pastas previously and substituted part of the cream with evaporated milk (which has kept my sauces from breaking/curdling) which makes for a lighter weeknight choice. Thanks for great flavor combination.
Nursemegg April 16, 2012
I got this recipe from a former co-worker and I have been making this recipe for years, usually at Christmas time....given the caloric count I can only do it once a year.

It is ALWAYS a hit and it doubles or triples easily. I think, however, it serves way more than four people...even as an entree...it is so rich and heavy you can't have much more than a small portion.
newkiwi April 15, 2012
I would really love to make and serve this (and cheese is my favorite food)...but the total fat content (heavy cream, all that cheese and butter, too) makes me delete this one. I mean, well-informed people just do not cook like this anymore! I hope you will keep these high-fat/high-calories recipes to a minimum!
Tatanka April 18, 2012
We all have a choice on whether to cook a recipe on Food52 or not. Not making a recipe like this here, or elsewhere is ridiculous. If it's good, and I just made it, so I can tell you it is amazing, there is no reason for posting the recipe. There are also a number of comments showing how to make the recipe lighter.
Andy April 15, 2012
Like most everyone, I always have little leftover scraps of cheese in the refrigerator that I rarely get around to using. The recipe seemed quite specific regarding the cheeses to use. What can I get away with regards other cheeses?
Kristen M. April 15, 2012
This is the basic formula that Killeen & Germon use for all eight baked pastas in their book, but they do vary it a bit, sometimes dropping a cheese or tweaking the amounts. You can use the amounts here as a guideline and try to include roughly the same measures of soft, semisoft, and hard cheeses that they do if you want to be safe, but it's quite flexible.
JET R. April 15, 2012
Great idea but if it serves 4 that means ½ cup cream, ½ cup cheese, and 1 tablespoon butter PER SERVING!
Kristen M. April 15, 2012
This isn't a light pasta, it's true. To be fair, I should clarify that the four entree servings recommendation would only be for four big eaters -- but better safe than sorry.