As an Italian-American, I was raised on that oh-so-comforting combination of meat, cheese, tomatoes and pasta. Growing up baked ziti was something my dad made to use up leftover ziti, and I saw it more in pizza parlors than my home. But recently I've developed a taste for this classic (way more American than Italian) and have started making my own. Dollops of fresh ricotta are what really make the dish for me, and the mozzarella must be good as well - none of that rubbery supermarket variety. I love to make Spaghetti Bolognese, and so essentially adapted that recipe for baked ziti. My own special touch: adding sauteed spinach in with the meat. —kmartinelli
Cook the ziti in a large pot of boiling water until just al dente. Drain and set aside.
Heat oil in a large pan. Add the onion, carrots, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened. Add the ground beef and cook, stirring frequently to break up the pieces, until browned and mostly cooked through. Add the spinach and mix in until wilted.
Meanwhile, heat oil in a separate pan. Add tomatoes and cook over moderate heat until the juices have released and a light sauce forms. Add this (or canned tomatoes) to meat mixture and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper.
Preheat oven to 350F. Spoon ziti and sauce mixture into a large baking or casserole pan. Top with evenly spaced dollops of the fresh ricotta and cover with shredded mozzarella. Bake until the cheese has melted completely and is lightly brown. Cut into squares and serve immediately.
A native New Yorker, I recently moved to Be'er Sheva, Israel with my husband while he completes medical school. I am a freelance food and travel writer and photographer who is always hungry and reads cookbooks in bed.