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 With Ricotta: Two Recipe Approaches
There are two approaches to making baked ziti: 1) quick and easy, and 2) elaborate and more time consuming.
The easy approach to 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?
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:
Baked Ziti With Ricotta Cheese: Italian-American Comfort Food
- 1 pound ziti or rigatoni pasta
- 12 to 18 meatballs (recipe follows)
- 2 quarts marinara sauce
- 16 ounces (2 cups) ricotta cheese
- 1 ½ cups shredded, low-moisture mozzarella (not fresh), divided
- 1 egg
- ¼ cup flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped
- ¼ cup grated pecorino-Romano cheese, plus more to garnish
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt (I use Diamond Crystal)
- 1 teaspoon fresh-cracked black pepper
- Gently heat the meatballs and marinara together.
- Boil the ziti pasta in a pot of well-salted water to very al dente. Drain.
- While the ziti is cooking, mix together in a large mixing bowl the ricotta cheese, 1 1/4 cup shredded mozzarella, egg, parsley, pecorino-Romano, garlic, salt, and pepper.
- Stir the pasta and 1 cup of tomato sauce into the ricotta 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 and a sprinkling of pecorino-Romano.
- 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.
Authentic Italian Meatballs
- 2 ½ pounds beef, pork, veal mix (equal portions)
- 2 cups plain breadcrumbs
- 1 cup milk
- 4 eggs, beaten
- ½ cup freshly-grated Pecorino-Romano cheese
- 1 bunch fresh, flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped fine
- 3 large cloves fresh garlic, finely grated or minced
- 1 medium onion, grated on the large-grate side of a box grater
- ½ teaspoon Kosher salt
- 15 turns fresh-cracked black pepper, or 1 teaspoon
- 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, salt, and pepper.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. Keep your fingers loose, and never squeeze the meat.
- 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 gravy or marinara, and serve with pasta.
Is the pecorino-Romano cheese mixed with the mozzarella?
Yes! My apologies for the slight omission in the directions. The recipe has been updated; I appreciate the note!
I was very happy to learn here how to put together an authentic ziti. I use gluten free penne which come in a 12 oz box, not 1 pound, so I fudged the amounts accordingly. Thanks for the recipe, and I just subscribed to your newsletter
Great! Thanks for trying the recipe, and welcome to Unpeeled Journal. I hope you enjoy.
Update from actual party
Good morning Lisa,since you were so kind to answer my ongoing questions as I got ready for my finance’s 70th, I wanted to let you know how everything went.
It was fantastic!!!
I know I mentioned I did a test run for the 2 of us a few nights before,it’s always “different “ somehow for the actual event (hope that makes sense!). But being a little different isn’t always a negative,as was the case here.
I made everything you provided(recipes), the meatballs (that included ground beef, pork,& veal), made the Sunday Sauce, and I did everything a few days before but began reheating everything about 5 hrs before (one,so the house would have the aromas,but also to adjust anything).
Nothing was dry in any way-textures we’re perfect.
I should mentor I baked off the “Baked Ziti” the day before. That,I slowly reheated @300 oven.
We had a party of 13 here . I doubled the Baked Ziti & doubled the amount of meatballs. There was about 1/4 left. Excellent-
I served it w/garlic bread that I baked,Jenn’s “Big Italian Salad” and also, I made Ina’s ricotta
On the table I had 3 sm bowls of freshly grated Pecorino—close by I had the hand grater handy in case anyone wanted more (and they did).
What a wonderful meal, it made the day very,very special. And it seems to be the perfect food for the Christmas season!
A million thanks to you!!!!
BTW -it was my chocolate cake w/ chocolate ganache filling & a little raspberry.
Pinot Noir served too
Everyone loved it !!!
Yea!!! This makes me so happy to hear and thanks for the update! I made some meatballs last night, in fact.
THANK YOU Lisa!!!!
Everything came out really,really good!!!
I see I repeated myself when I sent in my questions…?sorry about that!
I did a “test run” and we had it for dinner last night.
I made “Sunday Sauce” & my own ricotta,and what a treat!!!!
A million “thank you’s” for always taking the time to provide such thorough instructions & answers too to our questions….
You’re a great teacher .
EXCELLENT RECIPE w/ Great Instructions-
BTW. Very Authentic
The Baked Ziti & Homemade Meatballs (Marinara too), all take me back to my time as a student in R.I.-Thank you Lisa!
In fact , I’ve made this now 2 x in the last 6 months (I think), and my other 1/2 has requested this for his 70th Birthday which we are celebrating this Saturday on 12.11-W/ 10 of his family members-HELP, I have questions (a couple anyway-lol).
I’m making the marinara & meatballs today (it’s 12/5 today).
Should I bring the meatballs to room temperature before reheating? Then, HOW should I reheat the meatballs-at what temp ?
For the BAKED ZITI, Lisa should I assemble the pasta next Saturday morning, the day of the actual party? I’m concerned about the pasta getting mushy …what do you recommend?
Also , I know to double the marinara like you instructed-I’m considering adding a jar (or 2) of Rao’s as well (if we have leftovers,no ones heart will be broken !).
Anyway tips (I read the PRO TIPS instructions), but w/regards to REHEATING MEATBALLS, WHEN to ASSEMBLE ZITI , & making sure I make enough,I’d appreciate any thoughts. BTW: I’m making my own RICOTTA & I’m using Jenn’s recipe for “Big Italian Salad” too !
Also, what do you think about adding a jar or 2 of Rao’s to your marinara?
Thanks , Lisa
Hi, Lisa! I hope this all turned out great! Sorry that this comment got lost in the shuffle and I am just writing back now. Your instincts were good ones. Rao’s is definitely the best jarred sauce option if you need to supplement. And good for you for making your own ricotta! There’s nothing like it. For the record, you can reheat the meatballs straight from the fridge, either by microwaving or by gently heating them in a pot with the tomato sauce. You just don’t want to stir too much because they will break apart. I think that either assembling in advance or day-of is fine. The mixture isn’t so liquidy where the pasta would absorb too much. I hope this helps and sorry again about not responding in time! I am sure it was all fantastic 🙂
Linda Jean says
Oh my goodness – I married into this tradition of the meal before the meal and love it! Ours is manicotti with homemade shells (of course!). My husband’s family loves to tell stories about guests at the dinner table who didn’t know about the two meals and filled up on the first! I guess my husband took pity on me when we were dating and clued me in.
Yes!!! I love hearing this! I grew up with a ravioli course, which comes after the escarole soup course, but before the whole big turkey dinner! There’s no Thanksgiving like an Italian Thanksgiving 🙂 Thanks for sharing this.
Kasondra Bowman says
I want to make this for dinner but I don’t see anywhere what to set the temperature of the oven to. Is there a recommended temperature?
Hi, Kasondra! Ugh. Sorry about that. I switched recipe card formats a while ago and lost my little oven temperature box and forgot to add it back in to the text. It’s now added, and thanks so much for being my eyes on this one! Bake it at 350 degrees F. Enjoy! I’d love to hear how it turns out.
Made this for Sunday dinner last week – huge success!!
Thanks! One of my favorite Sunday dinners as well, especially with meatballs.
very much like my grandmother’s, so that is high praise 🙂
Danielle in NY says
This was excellent and I did make the meatballs and everything! A little time consuming, but sometimes it is worth it.
Trina P. says
One of my absolute favorite dinners. I can’t wait to try this.