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

April 13, 2012

Test Kitchen-Approved

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
Prep time: 30 min
Cook time: 15 min


  • 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
In This Recipe


  1. Heat oven to 500°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:
Pasta|Italian|Tomato|Serves a Crowd|Father's Day|Christmas|Fall|Summer|Valentine's Day|Winter|Mother's Day|Spring

Reviews (59) Questions (0)

59 Reviews

Andrew M. February 14, 2019
Alright so my husband hates tomatoes. I do not know what terrible suffering he endured to make it so, but that’s what I’m working with. <br />He loves lobster bisque though. <br /><br />Y’all. Y’all hear me out. <br /><br />Lobster bisque instead of cream and tomatoes. Throw in some asparagus for filling it out. Switch out the gorgonzola for something a little milder and lobster-friendly. Have y’self a glass of champagne cuz y’fancy and no one has to know that Costco lobster bisque is actually real good. <br /><br />Y’all. <br />It’s amazing.<br /><br />If you tried this and felt it was lacking, I highly recommend trying a good cream-based soup in place of just the cream.
Kristen M. February 15, 2019
Andrew, I salute you.
Beth W. August 7, 2018
Maybe it's because I wasn't very hungry when I ate this, but I wasn't as blown away as I expected to be. For me it turned out to be an alright dish but it wasn't something I'd want to serve to dinner guests - I think this was because I subbed more bland cheeses in place of the Gorgonzola and Fontina. Those must be what make the dish! I added some lightly sweated eggplant and fresh spinach which was very yummy, but if I make this dish again I'm going to be sure to use more flavorful cheeses than I did this round. I also found that my pasta took about 25 min in the oven (using a friends old oven, though) and I had to turn the pasta over every few minutes to make sure it all cooked through. It baked well in the end!
Jen V. June 20, 2017
I thought this was a great base pasta. It takes longer to preheat the oven than it does to prep and bake. I added leftover sausage and Swiss chard from my garden. It's very satisfying and a genius way to use up what's in your fridge!
rosemary |. May 14, 2017
I made this today and all I can say is ...WOW! So delicious and we just loved the texture of the pasta and the creaminess of the sauce. I can imagine switching this up by adding some veggies or meat but for now, I'm sticking with the original. Why mess with success?
beejay45 March 21, 2017
Maybe 20 years ago (or so) I had a similar dish at Il Fornaio in San Jose. The meal was memorable for not just the pasta dish, but for the fact that Janet Reno and three hunky Secret Service guys were at the next table. ;) That version used scamorza as one of the cheeses and layered in eggplant sliced and precooked as you might for eggplant parm, only without the coating. It was fantastic -- the eggplant was meltingly tender and the smoked mozz really made the rest of the dish sing. I'm going to try this recipe with those changes when I next make it.
Rachel April 26, 2016
Wonderful dish! I tried the recipe for the first time last night. I added in leftover chicken, pancetta and wilted spinach. I used half a can of diced tomato and one whole fresh tomato, I think next time I'll use all fresh tomatoes and more blue cheese! <br />Love the flexibility of this dish, a great one for cleaning out the fridge.
I_Fortuna April 10, 2016
I made a great lasagna last night and I wish I would have added a little cream. I really prefer cottage cheese over ricotta. Ricotta is too gummy and never quite marries with the rest of the ingredients. : )
Alleycat July 28, 2015
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!
I_Fortuna April 10, 2016
It might behoove one to check out Dr. Hyman's recommendations for a healthy diet because he recommend we eat more fat. We have switched over from non fat to fat and have actually lost weight and have great cholesterol numbers. Science has changed our way of thinking.<br />We use Kerrygold butter, full fat cheese full fat half and half, and cream regularly. <br />Fat is very necessary to absorb various vitamins. : )
Tricia S. July 21, 2015
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? <br /><br />Thx
Alexis S. April 7, 2015
I really hated this. So heavy and goupy and bland. This liquids didn't cook all of the pasta so in was uneven.
robin L. April 4, 2015
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)...
keg72 February 15, 2015
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.
Loredona January 2, 2015
Has anyone prepared this in the morning to serve for dinner? Can you do it in advance and just bake when company arrives?
kim February 3, 2015
the original recipe from Al Forno says you can! 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.
Eden C. November 2, 2014
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 :)
Babette October 7, 2014
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.
strawberrygirl February 18, 2014
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.
booglix January 22, 2014
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?
booglix January 22, 2014
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!
marlane C. January 28, 2014
Ina, George and Joanne, owners of Al Forno are friends. Ina does credit them in her book.
Sherry January 22, 2014
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!
Double H. January 20, 2014
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!