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Baked Ziti With Ricotta

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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. 

Italian baked ziti with ricotta on plate

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.

baked ziti with ricotta cheese ingredients eggs cheese

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.

baked ziti ingredients pasta meatballs ricotta cheese eggs

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:

Italian baked ziti casserole with tomato sauce on wood with red wine

Love this classic baked ziti recipe? You’ll also love:

Italian baked ziti casserole with tomato sauce on wood with red wine

Best Baked Ziti With Ricotta

The ultimate Italian comfort food pasta. This baked ziti recipe with ricotta cheese makes a cheesy, satisfying dinner smothered in tomato sauce and meatballs.
Prep Time30 minutes
Cook Time45 minutes
Meatballs20 minutes
Total Time20 minutes
Course: dinner
Cuisine: American, Italian
Keywords:: baked ziti recipe, best baked ziti, casserole, comfort food, easy, italian food, marinara, meatballs, pasta, ricotta cheese, ziti
Servings: 6 to 8 people
Print

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  • 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.
bowl of italian meatballs in tomato sauce with rigatoni pasta

Classic Italian Meatballs

A big, best meatball recipe for a Sunday sauce crowd. This recipe can be easily halved, and extra can be frozen in a gallon freezer bag and saved for other dinners.
Prep Time20 minutes
Cook Time20 minutes
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Italian
Keywords:: italian, meatballs
Servings: 30 or so medium-sized meatballs
Print

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  • 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.

20 comments

  • do you put some meatballs in the casserole as well as serving on the side
    anxious to try this next week
    enjoy your recipes Lisa
    Massing quite a collection

    • Unpeeled

      HI, Barb! Thanks so much for the kind words. Yes, if you make the whole batch of meatballs, you will have plenty left over to serve on the side (or even freeze for future use!).

  • Is the pecorino-Romano cheese mixed with the mozzarella?

    • Unpeeled

      Yes! My apologies for the slight omission in the directions. The recipe has been updated; I appreciate the note!

  • Judith

    5 stars
    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

    • Unpeeled

      Great! Thanks for trying the recipe, and welcome to Unpeeled Journal. I hope you enjoy.

  • 5 stars
    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 !!!

    • Unpeeled

      Yea!!! This makes me so happy to hear and thanks for the update! I made some meatballs last night, in fact.

  • 5 stars
    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 .

    Lisa

  • 5 stars
    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

    • Unpeeled

      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

    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.

    • Unpeeled

      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

    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?

    • Unpeeled

      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.

  • 5 stars
    Made this for Sunday dinner last week – huge success!!

    • Unpeeled

      Thanks! One of my favorite Sunday dinners as well, especially with meatballs.

  • 5 stars
    very much like my grandmother’s, so that is high praise 🙂

4.29 from 21 votes (14 ratings without comment)

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