Just before all the kids started coming home for college, one of them put an image on our family group chat of some yummy baked ziti they enjoyed at a restaurant – with the caption, “Not as good as mom’s, but yummy!” Awww! Thanks for the complement!
I learned baked ziti as a teenager at an Italian restaurant where I worked, and have been making it ever since, tweaking the recipe here and there through the years. It’s really kind of an Italian take on mac-and-cheese, which my family loves. It’s very similar to lasagna, depending on what you put in it… and what you usually put in your lasagna!
It’s easy, and tasty, and can last for a week of leftover lunches. You can make it the day before, and cook it the day you need it, and probably it would freeze well, but we never have any leftovers!
We make this without meat about half the time, and I like to add in a big package of fresh spinach, chopped up; it adds some pretty color. When I look over other people’s recipes, they always add in an onion when browning meat to put in. But I never have added an onion – plus, college girl who wanted it doesn’t like onions.
Here’s my recipe. I hope your family loves it like mine does!
2 8-oz. containers ricotta cheese
2 jars of your favorite marinara sauce, separated (my preference is Classico
Organic Marinara Pasta Sauce, but my local store doesn’t always
1 lb. box of ziti pasta
2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded and separated
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese (not the powdered/grated can!)
1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped finely, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
a bag of fresh spinach, chopped (optional)
1 lb ground Italian sausage (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare a large casserole dish by spraying it lightly with cooking spray.
If using meat, brown the sausage over medium-high heat in a skillet. Drain the fat and set aside.
Meanwhile, boil ziti in salted water until al dente – according to package directions. Pour in colander to drain.
In a large bowl, combine ricotta, ONE jar of the marinara sauce, 1 cup of the mozzarella, the Parmesan, the parsley, Italian seasoning and salt and pepper. Stir to combine. Sprinkle in some salt and pepper. Add in drained pasta (and meat, if you are using it), and stir to combine. Here, you can also add in a little garlic powder, or red pepper flakes to spice it up.
If you are using spinach, you can put it in with this mixture, or make a better presentation with a pretty layer of spinach running through the center; put in half the pasta mixture, put a layer of spinach, and top with the rest of the pasta. Smooth the top over a bit, so no pieces of pasta are sticking out – they will get browned more than the rest.
Bake at 350 degrees F. for about 30-35 minutes, uncovered, until bubbly and lightly browned on top. Remove from oven.
Sprinkle mozzarella cheese in diagonal stripes over the top of the baked casserole. In between the cheese “stripes,” pour a “stripe” of marinara sauce, creating a red and white striped top (Viva Italiano!)
Put back in the oven about 5 minutes until the mozzarella has melted some. Remove from oven and sprinkle the cheese “stripes” with some chopped parsley.
Do you have to do this fancy top? Of course not. But it’s so easy, and you should always do your best to present pretty food!
Enjoy with a salad, and serve with a little warmed sauce, in case some like it with more. Serves about 8-10.