This baked ziti—or penne, or rigatoni, or whatever shape you like—is extra in every single way. There’s sausage and there’s bacon. There’s mozzarella and there’s Parmesan. There’s tomato sauce so delicious, you might be tempted to eat it on its own. Heck, there’s even crème fraîche.
But the true beauty of our best-ever baked ziti is in its layering. We took the usual construction (sauce, noodles, cheese—then repeat) and mixed it up, for two reasons. One: because beginning with a bottom layer of creamy, melty mozzarella and ricotta and crème fraîche beneath the pasta provides lots of insurance against dryness, which is as bad as baked ziti gets. And two: because the way ours works, you have two distinct cheese moats, and it’s very fun to say “cheese moat.” There’s one on the bottom, and one between the two pasta layers, and you’re encouraged to mention both to your guests as many times as seems socially appropriate.
Now, for a very official word on noodles. If you’re a purist, by all means use regular old ziti here. The recipe itself calls for ziti rigati, which is ribbed, and we think all the better for sauce-clinging. But you could also call in rigatoni (our favorite), or calamarata, or penne, or even fusilli. Just don’t forget to pull out a few noodles around the edges, for baking, because nobody ever said “no” to extra crispy bits. —Ella Quittner
- Prep time 25 minutes
- Cook time 1 hour 30 minutes
- Serves 6 to 8
(28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes
extra-virgin olive oil
thick-cut bacon, sliced into pieces roughly 1/2-inch wide
(about 4 to 6) sweet Italian sausage, casings removed (you can substitute half for spicy Italian sausage)
large yellow onion, diced
unsalted butter, divided
kosher salt, plus more for salting water, and more to taste
red pepper flakes
pound ziti rigati (see Author Note)
1 1/4 cups
(about 7 ounces) finely grated Parmesan or Grana Padano, divided
1 1/2 pounds
fresh mozzarella, shredded or roughly cut into 1/2-inch cubes, and patted dry with a clean dish towel
- Make the sauce. In a large bowl, use your hands to break up the whole peeled tomatoes into small bite–sized pieces, in the juices from the can. Set aside. (Note: If the juices are thin like water, versus thick like a Bloody Mary, remove and toss about 1/2 cup.)
- Make the meat sauce: Place a 6-quart Dutch oven or large, heavy pot over a medium-high flame and heat the olive oil until glistening. Add the bacon and cook until the fat renders and the meat is crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. To the rendered fat, add the uncased sausage and brown thoroughly—don’t jostle too much!—while breaking it up with a wooden spoon into small, shaggy pieces. When it’s fully browned, remove and set aside. Carefully, pour out about two-thirds of the rendered fat from the pan into a heatproof bowl to discard later, then place the pan back over the flame. Add the onion to the pan, and reduce the heat to medium. Sauté about 6 to 8 minutes, until the onion’s mostly translucent. Add the red pepper flakes and allow them to bloom for about 30 seconds, until you can smell them. Add the crushed tomatoes, their juices, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoons butter, and the reserved bacon and sausage. Let the sauce come to a rolling simmer before turning the flame to medium-low, and simmering, uncovered, about 25 to 30 minutes, until reduced by about a fifth, darkened, and jammy. (While this is happening, you can tackle the next few steps.)
- Cook the noodles: Set a large, covered pot of heavily salted water on the stove and bring it to a boil. Add the noodles and cook 3 minutes less than indicated for al dente on the package—they’ll continue to soften in the oven.
- Heat the oven to 450°F. Use the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter to grease a 9x13-inch metal baking dish. (You could use glass, too, though metal will get the edges crispier!) Set dish aside.
- Prepare the ricotta mixture: Combine ricotta, crème fraîche, a pinch of salt, and 2/3 cup of Parmesan. Set aside.
- When sauce is ready, turn off heat, and season with salt salt as needed. Reserve 2 cups of the tomato sauce in a separate bowl and set aside. Toss the drained pasta with the rest of the sauce.
- Time to assemble. Yay! First thing’s first: Grab your buttered baking dish, and swirl about 1 cup of the tomato sauce and 1 cup of the ricotta mixture on the bottom. Sprinkle evenly with 1/2 cup mozzarella and 1/2 cup Parmesan. Add half of the sauced noodles on top of that, and spoon 1/2 cup of reserved sauce over the noodles.
- Next, dot the rest of the ricotta mixture over the sauce, and gently smooth it out. Sprinkle half of the remaining Parmesan and half of the remaining mozzarella on top of that. Top the cheesy layer with the rest of the sauced noodles, spread evenly, and the remaining sauce. Top with the rest of the Parmesan and mozzarella. If you live for crispy noodle bits, be sure to rearrange so as many noodles as possible are sticking out.
- Place into the oven on the middle rack, uncovered, and bake until the cheese is speckled with brown spots, the sauce is bubbling up around the sides, and the noodles sticking out look nice and crisp—about 25 to 30 minutes. (For oven–floor insurance you can stick a baking sheet on the floor or the rack below to capture any drips.) Let baked ziti cool for at least 10 minutes, so the sauce has a chance to set a bit, before serving warm.