In an earlier post, I listed a few of my favorite savory and sweet baked dishes. Today I want to focus on a very specific Italian specialty in this broad category: pasta al forno.
Italian comfort food par excellence, pasta al forno is a pasta bake that’s a creamy, savory, warm, velvety embrace. For me it’s a key childhood sensory reminder. As an excellent fridge-cleaner, my pasta al forno can employ salumi on the verge of their expiry, assorted cheese, eggs, mushrooms, and anything I like. I parboil the pasta, dress it up in the oven dish and then pop it in the hot oven for a few minutes to form the delicious crosticina, a golden crust around the edges that everyone fights for.
Pasta al forno is a dish that kids love. Rich and tasty versions are made with a hearty tomato sauce, or with white sauce. Pasta al forno can also artfully “hide” tons of nutritious vegetables thanks to a delicate homemade bechamel, and lots of delicious grated cheese.
Virtually any pasta shape works for pasta al forno. Think rigatoni, bucatini, ziti, penne, bowties, tagliatelle, spaghetti and so on. Basically, anything capable of grabbing and enveloping sauces and condiments. Smothered in a creamy white sauce, the pasta bakes until bubbly and golden. Given shape and surface space, pastas also char in some spots, or more creamy and soft in other parts. This provides a welcome variety of textures and flavors.
Here a list of a few of my favorite baked pasta recipes.
Pasta sheets layered with tomato sauce and bechamel is pasta al forno, lasagna is the mother of all Italian pasta bakes. This iconic preparation is the classic Bolognese version, but variations abound. Think seasonal lasagne al pesto; layered with assorted produce for a vegetarian version, or the Neapolitan Carnevale lasagna, stacked tall and rich.
Thin squares of pasta are rolled into tubes and filled with spinach and ricotta or minced beef. The tubular cannelloni are typically served with tomato sauce, dusted with grated cheese and baked until piping hot.
Literally ‘big sleeves,’ manicotti are cousins to cannelloni. But while the latter is pasta sheets wrapped around the filling, manicotti are ribbed cylinders piped with the filling from one end. Popular manicotti fillers include ricotta mixed with chopped boiled spinach, or ground meat. Topped with béchamel and a generous dusting of Pecorino Romano and/or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, tomato sauce or ragù.
This is a classic way of repurposing leftovers. Tortellini shine in broth or in a simple brown butter sauce. A popular 1980s recipe, tortellini alla panna, tossed the pasta with heavy cream and laced with cubed ham and peas. Any tortellini leftovers can receive new life by making a pasticcio. That is, mixing with bechamel and ragù or simple tomato sauce, a dusting of grated cheese, breadcrumbs and a few minutes in the oven.
The particularity of these large ribbed “seashells” is the spacious cavity that can be filled with a variety of foods. Then you can top the filled shells with tomato puree or simply white sauce and cheese before baking in the oven. Usually sold in the plain durum wheat variety, but also in colored versions made with natural pigments like tomato, beetroot, squid ink or spinach extracts.
In our household we make timballo di capellini, with angel hair. But you can make this classic Italian timbale with virtually any pasta shape. In Naples, the traditional recipe is as bizarre as it is delicious: an outer shell of sweet shortcrust pastry conceals a savory filling of macaroni, sausages, caciocavallo cheese, tomato sauce and sometimes eggs. A complete meal dish for Sunday lunch with the entire family gathered at the table.
Anelletti al forno
This molded pasta bake is a Sicilian specialty from Palermo and one I am particularly fond of. There are obviously many versions of this recipe. Practically every family has its own, jealously guarded and secretly handed down generations. They are all equally delicious. Some cooks use small bits of salami; others include bechamel. Some folks omit the peas, nutmeg and sugar from the sauce; others prefer to slice in provola in place of tuma. However, there are requisites that Palermo natives will not compromise when preparing anelletti al forno.
- The shape of the pasta: the only type of pasta allowed is ring-shaped anelletti.
- The ring mold, deep, flat and large enough to feed an army.
- Mandatory fried eggplant and toasted breadcrumbs line the bottom of the ring mold.
- Present the finished dish at the table turned upside down on a serving plate. In this way the slices of fried eggplant and the golden breadcrumbs are visible amid the pasta.
There are a gazillion other pasta al forno recipes out there (including the original inspiration for American mac ‘n’ cheese and turkey Tetrazzini). But nothing beats my classic in bianco (tomatoless) version, made with simple béchamel, plus gruyere and Fontina, cheeses that melt beautifully.
If you’re interested in learning the secrets, I’ll be hosting a pasta al forno lesson via zoom. Join me on Saturday, November 14th, straight from my tiny Roman kitchen. Have the kids join the fun! Can also be gluten-free!