What’s not to love about pasta filled with creamy ricotta and fresh spinach baked in a spicy marinara sauce and topped with bubbly, gooey mozzarella?
Disclosure: I received cheese from Calabro Cheese Corp. to facilitate this recipe. I received no other compensation and the opinions contained herein are my own and reflect my experience with the products. Your own may differ.
I go through phases where I crave a really good baked ziti. It’s such a simple thing, but surprisingly hard to find at any of my local Italian-American restaurants. To be frank, they have all been sub-par: not cheesy enough, not baked enough, not enough sauce, and not enough flavor. That’s when I decided I needed to stop being so lazy and just make it myself. But, of course, I wanted to put my own twist on it. That’s when Pinterest introduced Rigatoni Pie into my feed. Search over.
This is a baked pasta dish that only looks fancy. In a way, Rigatoni Pie is the embodiment of #EatingForTheInsta. It’s the same delicious, carby comfort food you love, but in a prettier form. It just requires a little hands-on time to stand each rigatoni on edge and fill individually. I know that sounds like a lot of work but it’s worth the extra effort to turn what’s truly a simple meal into something pretty enough to serve at a dinner party.
Let’s start with what I think are the three key areas to making a really good baked pasta dish.
You need good quality cheese and enough of it to make things ooey-gooey but not SO much as to weigh down and overwhelm the rest of the ingredients.
I used both Calabro whole-milk ricotta and fresh mozzarella fior di latte. The ricotta is made from local, farm fresh milk and has a delicate, creamy texture. Made with fresh, pasteurized cow’s milk, the fior di latte is semi-soft mozzarella packed in water with a delicate, milky flavor. Calabro offers fresh mozzarella in a variety of different sizes from bite-sized perline to 1lb logs. I had ovoline which translates into “little egg.” Side note: The ovoline is the perfect size of mozzarella to slice and use in a Caprese salad.
The sauce needs to have some flavor. You can’t be shy with seasoning. Additionally, you want the dish to be moist but not drowning in sauce.
I made a spicy marinara sauce using homegrown pureed tomatoes, homegrown crushed hot pepper flakes, and dried oregano we brought home from Sicily. My homegrown crushed hot pepper flake combo is a crazy blend of dried serrano, jalapeno, habanero, cayenne, and Chinese 5-color. It’s way spicier than anything I’ve found in the grocery store, so 2 teaspoons of it are pretty spicy. You might need more or less depending on your palate.
Baking Time + Temp
I am a huge fan of the crispy bits around the edges of baked pasta. You need the edges to get crusty but without drying out the rest of the dish.
I chose a hot but not too hot oven temp of 375 degrees Fahrenheit. I start the baking time with the rigatoni covered in foil to keep things moist, but then remove it for the last 15 minutes or so to get things crispy.
It’s all about finding a nice balance of pasta to cheese to sauce and then baking just enough but not too much. This recipe gets pretty close to my ideal: Crunchy edges with a golden and bubbly mozzarella top and a succulent, flavorful interior.
Spicy Rigatoni Pie
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 1/4 large onion minced
- 28 ounces tomato puree
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons crushed hot pepper flakes
- 1 pound rigatoni No. 7
- 2 cups chopped fresh spinach
- 1 1/3 cup fresh ricotta
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 8 ounces fresh mozzarella thinly sliced
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- Make the sauce. Heat the olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Saute the garlic and onion, until the garlic becomes lightly golden brown and the onion translucent. Add in the tomato puree. Season with dried oregano, crushed red pepper flakes and salt to taste. Bring to a simmer. Cover and let simmer until ready to assemble the pie.
- Make the filling. Place 2 cups of chopped fresh spinach in a small food processor. Pulse until very finely minced. Stir into a bowl with 1 1/3 cups ricotta, 1 egg, 1/4 cup grated Parmesan. Season with salt and black pepper. Stir until well combined. Set aside.
- Cook the rigatoni. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook pasta shy of the usual cooking time, approximately 7-8 minutes. Drain.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Assemble the pie. Ladle 1 cup of sauce into the bottom of an 8.5-inch springform pan. Stand the rigatoni on their ends in the pan until it is completely filled. Place the pan on a foil-lined baking sheet to catch drips.
- Scoop the filling into a piping bag or Ziploc bag and snip the corner. Gently fill each rigatoni with the filling.
- Pour 1 1/2 cups of the sauce over the top of the filled rigatoni. Shake to evenly distribute the sauce. Lay the thin slices of mozzarella over the top, overlapping if necessary.
- Cover with foil slightly domed so it does not touch the cheese. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes.
- Remove foil and cook for another 15 minutes until the cheese is bubbling and golden brown.
- Take out of the oven and let cool for 10 minutes before removing the sides of the pan.
- Cut into wedges and serve with any extra sauce on the side.
Photos by Renato Ghio