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We eagerly anticipate when the weather finally turns cool here in South Texas, which makes eating rich, hearty dishes more appealing. Along with Pasta Carbonara and Cacio e Pepe, Rigatoni al Forno is one of our favorites. Much less labor intensive than preparing lasagna, this dish is easy to put together and provides the same savory cheesy delicious bite.
What Does al Forno Style Mean
The term “al Forno” translates from Italian as “baked” which includes dishes like pizza, pasta dishes, lasagna, and bread like focaccia. Pasta al forno explicitly refers to a baked pasta. Common types of pasta al forno are rigatoni al forno, baked ziti, and lasagna al forno. This rigatoni al form is made with rigatoni, a delicious meat sauce, and topped with melted cheese.
Key Ingredients and Substitutions
This recipe is very adaptable, and you can clean out the pantry and fridge to throw this together on a weeknight.
The complete ingredient list and measurements are listed in the printable recipe below.
- Rigatoni: This medium-sized extruded pasta is the perfect vehicle for gooey cheese and rich sauce. Lots of other ‘short’ pasta would work, including macaroni, penne, Farfalle, Orecchiette, etc. – all designed to capture hearty ragù and chunky vegetable sauces in their sturdy hollows and ridges.
- Ground Pork or Beef and Italian Sausage: These are classic proteins to use, but can be replaced with meatballs, pulled pork, diced-up chicken, or even cured sausages. All of the new vegan meat products would also work, or thick chunks of portabella mushroom to get the same flavor and texture as beef and pork.
- Canned Whole Tomatoes: We prefer to use simple ingredients to elicit authentic flavor, but instead of canned tomatoes and the herbs and spices we used in this recipe, you could use your favorite jarred sauce with an extra hit of Italian spice mix from the pantry.
- Ricotta, Mozzarella, and Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese: Artisanal versions of these cheeses will include flavors you just won’t get from pre-shredded Italian blends that are popular, but if that’s what you have on hand, it will still melt to help bind everything together.
Rigatoni vs Penne vs Ziti
Rigatoni, penne, and ziti are three types of pasta that share some similarities but also have distinct differences in terms of shape and texture:
- Shape: Rigatoni are large, ridged, and cylindrical pasta tubes. They have a wide diameter and straight edges with deep ridges running the length of the pasta.
- Texture: The ridges and large size of rigatoni make them ideal for capturing and holding onto thick, chunky sauces, making them a popular choice for baked pasta dishes like rigatoni al forno.
- Use: Rigatoni’s robust shape and texture work well with hearty sauces, meat-based ragùs, and creamy cheese sauces.
- Shape: Penne are also cylindrical pasta tubes, but they have a diagonal cut at both ends, creating a characteristic pointed shape. They can be smooth or have ridges (penne rigate).
- Texture: The diagonal cut of penne helps sauces cling to the pasta, and the ridged variety adds even more texture for better sauce adherence.
- Use: Penne is versatile and pairs well with a wide range of sauces, from creamy Alfredo to tomato-based sauces. They are often used in pasta salads and baked pasta dishes.
- Shape: Ziti are similar to penne in shape but are longer and have a smooth, cylindrical tube shape without any ridges. They have a straight cut at both ends.
- Texture: Ziti’s smooth surface means that sauces can slide off more easily compared to penne or rigatoni. However, this can also be advantageous in certain recipes.
- Use: Ziti is commonly used in baked pasta dishes, such as baked ziti. Its smooth surface allows it to hold creamy sauces and cheese well.
How to Make Rigatoni al Forno
Here are the quick step-by-step instructions with visuals; you can find the full instructions with the exact ingredients in the recipe card below.
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Pro-tip: We prefer a lighter meat sauce on pasta so for a more meaty sauce increase the amount of pork/beef and sausage.
1. Cook the Pasta: Preheat the oven to 375°F. Cook the rigatoni to al dente about two minutes less than what is recommended on the package directions.
2. Sauté the Ingredients: While the pasta is cooking, sauté the onions in extra virgin olive oil in a skillet for about 2 minutes or until tender then add the fennel seeds, pepper flakes, garlic, oregano, ground beef (or pork), and ground sausage. Cook until the pork and sausage are lightly brown.
3. Make the Sauce: Add the canned whole tomatoes along with the tomato sauce and tomato paste to the skillet with the other ingredients. Using a potato masher or wooden spoon crush the whole tomatoes into smaller chunks. Let the tomato meat sauce simmer for 3-4 minutes to help thicken the sauce.
4. Bake the Rigatoni al Forno: In a 9×13 baking dish add one-quarter of the meat sauce to the bottom then top with half the cooked pasta along with more sauce.
Dollop the pasta and sauce with ricotta and sprinkle with half the shredded mozzarella. Layer with half the remaining sauce and all the remaining pasta.
Top with the remaining meat sauce and shredded mozzarella. Sprinkle with shredded Parmigano Reggiano. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the cheese is bubbly. Rest the pasta casserole for 5-10 minutes before serving. Serve with a garnish of fresh basil and parsley.
What to Serve with Rigatoni al Forno
Serve this baked rigatoni dish with a fresh side salad to balance out the rich and hearty sauce. Our favorite salad with pasta is an Italian salad that is made with toasted sesame seeds. A great loaf of garlic bread also pairs well. Plus it’s a great way to get any tasty leftover sauce off the plate.
This rigatoni al forno is perfect as is but you can also easily customize it.
- Substitute the ground beef and sausage with chicken or even meatballs that have been cut in quarters.
- Make this vegetarian by substituting the ground proteins with veggies like mushrooms, spinach, bell peppers, egg plant, or zucchini.
- Use a different shaped pasta like ziti, penne, or macaroni.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Make-Ahead: You can make the tomato meat sauce in advance. Store it covered in an air-tight container in the refrigerator. It can be made up to 2 days in advance. When ready to bake, cooke the pasta and layer in the meat sauce, pasta, and cheese as directed. The entire recipe can be made in advance and then frozen. Use a freezer-safe container or disposable aluminum foil pans then cover tightly with foil and place in a freezer-safe bag to prevent freezer burn. To bake from frozen, allow additional time to cook or defrost in the refrigerator for 1-2 days.
How to Store: Store leftovers for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator in an air-tight container. In a freezer-safe container, it can be frozen for up to 3 months.
How to Reheat: Allow frozen rigatoni al forno to thaw in the refrigerator then transfer it to an oven-safe dish. Cover with foil and reheat at 350°F for 20-25 minutes or until heated through. To reheat in a microwave transfer to a microwave-safe dish, cover, and heat in one-minute increments until thoroughly heated. Top with additional parsley, basil, or cheese if desired.
Recipe Tips and Notes
- Only use freshly grated cheese since pre-shredded cheese contains de-clumping additives that affect how it melts. This includes the fresh mozzarella.
- We make this dish with mild Italian sausage since we are adding red pepper flakes but you can use hot Italian sausage for a spicy kick.
- To avoid overcooked pasta cook it to al dente since it will be baking in the oven with sauce.
- Unlike other cheese, ricotta doesn’t melt since it is made using heat and acid. It is perfect for lasagna or other baked pasta dishes for its flavor and creaminess.
- A can of crushed tomatoes can be substituted for whole tomatoes.
- You can also use a store-bought spaghetti sauce. Cook onions, spices, ground beef, and sausage as directed but substitute your favorite jarred sauce instead of the canned tomatoes.
Frequently Asked Questions
They are similar. Both are made with a tomato meat sauce, short pasta, and a variety of cheese such as mozzarella, parmesan, and ricotta before being baked.
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Rigatoni al Forno
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- 10-12 ounces rigatoni
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup onion, chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ pound ground pork or beef
- ½ pound ground Italian sausage
- 28 ounces whole canned tomatoes, drained
- 8 ounces tomato sauce
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup ricotta cheese
- 2 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded
- ½ cup Parmigiano Reggiano, shredded
- 1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- In a large saucepan cook the rigatoni to al dente about two minutes less than what is recommended on the package directions.
- While pasta is cooking, sauté onions in a large skillet for 2 minutes then add the fennel seeds, pepper flakes, garlic, oregano, ground beef/pork, and ground sausage. Stir and cook until lightly brown.
- Add whole tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste to the skillet. Crush the whole tomatoes into smaller chunks. Let the tomato meat sauce simmer for 3-4 minutes uncovered. Stir occasionally to avoid it burning on the bottom.
- In a 9×13 baking dish add about one-quarter of the meat sauce and top with about half the pasta and additional one-quarter of sauce. Top with dollops of ricotta cheese along with half the shredded mozzarella.
- Layer the remaining pasta and meat sauce and top with dollops of ricotta and the remaining shredded mozzarella. Sprinkle with shredded Parmigiano Reggiano.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the cheese is bubbly. Let sit for 5 minutes then sprinkle with fresh basil and parsley and serve.
Update Notes: This post was originally published on December 4, 2022, but was republished with new photos, instructions, tips, and FAQs in October of 2023.