Italian comfort food at its finest.
This creamy, tomato-smothered Italian baked ziti recipe with ricotta is the real deal. Ideally served with a big bowl of meatballs, this is perfect both as a weekday or Sunday dinner.
Recipe: The Best Baked Ziti With Ricotta and Meatballs
When it comes to pure comfort food, Americans have mac and cheese. But Italian-Americans have baked ziti. Ricotta cheesy, tomato-smothered baked ziti, served in a large casserole — ideally with a large bowl of meatballs and sausage on the side — is one of the best dinners around. Ideal as a Sunday dinner, this can also be assembled and frozen in advance for dinner any day.
Best Baked Ziti Recipe With Ricotta: Two Approaches
There are two approaches to making baked ziti: 1) quick and easy, and 2) elaborate and more time consuming.
The easy approach to Italian baked ziti is to boil the pasta, stir it together with the ricotta cheese mixture, then bake with ladles of marinara top and bottom.
The more elaborate, “Sunday dinner” baked ziti method way is not hard. It just requires more steps. First, you make a tomato sauce from scratch. Then, while the sauce is bubbling away, make the meatballs. Add the meatballs to the marinara and let it bubble for about 20 minutes, then proceed with the pasta and cheese filling, and bake.
What’s the difference between ziti and lasagna?
Ziti and lasagna are both Italian casseroles baked with the same fundamental ingredients and method. The ingredients are the same, making ziti basically lasagna except for one important difference. The difference between ziti and lasagna lies in the pasta shape. Lasagna is made from long, flat, wide noodles. Baked ziti is made from ziti pasta, a tubular pasta similar to rigatoni or penne. Both of these shapes make great substitutes, by the way.
Baked Ziti With Ricotta: Recipe Notes
Do you need to cover ziti while baking?
Yes, you will have to cover the baked ziti while baking, but only for the first half of the cooking time. Covering the ziti ensures that the casserole does not dry out and the ricotta cheese filling stays moist. Then, remove the foil to finish cooking and give the top a little crispiness.
Baked Ziti Recipe: Ricotta and Marinara Notes
- You will need a double recipe of marinara, so that you have enough to bake the baked ziti and serve each portion with a nice spoonful on top
- Buy the freshest, most high-quality ricotta you can find. The ricotta is a big component of the pasta, so the quality will make a difference. Other than homemade ricotta — and I think you should go for it! I use queen Ina Garten’s recipe — I think Polly-O and Trader Joe’s are the best. In addition to a good ricotta cheese, Polly-O also makes good mozzarella.
- Use part-skim mozzarella, and not fresh. I also like to grate mine fresh.
Luckily, neither great marinara nor delicious, homemade meatballs are complex. Even luckier, both can be made up to a few days in advance. Here are the recipes you need:
- Recipe: 20-Minute Marinara. Do a double recipe so you have enough for both the ziti and to ladle over each portion when serving
- Recipe: The Best Italian Meatballs. These are my family recipe. And it’s great.
Love this classic baked ziti recipe? You’ll also love:
Best Baked Ziti With Ricotta
- 1 pound ziti or rigatoni pasta
- 12 to 18 meatballs (recipe follows)
- 2 quarts marinara sauce
- 16 ounces (2 cups) ricotta cheese
- 1 1/2 cup shredded, low-moisture mozzarella (not fresh), divided
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped
- 1/4 cup grated pecorino-Romano cheese, plus more to garnish
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon fresh-cracked black pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Gently heat the meatballs and marinara together.
- Boil the pasta in a pot of well-salted water to very al dente. Drain.
- While the pasta is cooking, mix together in a large mixing bowl the ricotta cheese, 1 1/4 cup shredded mozzarella, egg, parsley, salt, pepper, and garlic.
- Stir the pasta and 1 cup of tomato sauce into the cheese mixture.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a 8" x 12" casserole or similar. Spoon one or two cups of tomato sauce into the bottom of the casserole. Add the pasta and cheese mixture and spread evenly in the casserole. Spoon an additional two cups of tomato sauce on top of the ziti. Top with the remaining 1/4 cups shredded mozzarella.
- Bake, covered with foil, for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake for an additional 20 to 25 minutes. Serve hot with more meatballs and sauce.
Classic Italian Meatballs
- 2 1/2 pounds beef, pork, veal mix (equal portions)
- 2 cups plain breadcrumbs
- 4 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup milk
- 1 bunch fresh, flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped fine
- 1 medium onion, grated on the large-grate side of a box grater
- 1/2 cup freshly-grated Pecorino-Romano cheese
- 3 large cloves fresh garlic, finely grated or minced
- 15 turns fresh-cracked black pepper, or 1 teaspoon
- 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
- Preheat the oven to 425°F and lightly grease or line with parchment two half-sheet pans.
- Put the meat in a large mixing bowl. Add the breadcrumbs, and pour the milk over the breadcrumbs and allow it to soak in for a minute.
- Add the eggs, Pecorino-Romano cheese, chopped parsley, minced garlic, grated onion.PRO TIP: Include the upper half of the parsley stems when chopping. The stems of most soft herbs, like parsley and cilantro, are completely edible and have great flavor.
- Remove your rings and bracelets and put them safely on the windowsill or a ring holder. Your hands are about to get a little messy. Mix the meatballs until combined -- mixing with your hands is the best, and arguably only, way. PRO TIP: Mixing the meatballs is an important step. It is important not to over-mix the meat. If the meat becomes too over-mixed, it will lose its ideal, fall-apart consistency. Using your hands helps control the mixing.
- Using a 1/2 cup scoop, lightly shape the meatballs with your hands into loose but solid rounds, and place them on the prepared sheet pans, with at least 1" space between each.
- Bake for 20 minutes, rotating the pans halfway. "Sample" one or two hot out of the oven, then smother them with Sunday sauce or marinara, and serve with pasta.