Pasta al Forno is a hearty Italian baked dish that marries perfectly cooked pasta with seasoned ground beef and cheesy tomato sauce. A comforting hug in the form of a casserole made with pantry ingredients that are easily available.
We love pasta and is my go-to option for dinner on busy weeknights. My Italian-inspired recipes may not be authentic, but I steer clear of turning them into fusion recipes. But, this easy al Forno-style pasta is a crowd-pleaser and perfect for a cosy night, as it comes together quickly with a few ready-to-use ingredients.
What is pasta al forno?
Pasta al forno is Italian for "to the oven" or in a more general term as "baked pasta" in English. It's a versatile and hearty preparation that typically involves cooking pasta, mixing it with a sauce, layering it with cheese, and then baking it in the oven. The result is a delicious and comforting casserole-style dish with a variety of possible ingredients and flavour combinations.
While the exact recipe can vary, pasta al forno often includes ingredients like ground meat, tomato sauce, ricotta, and a generous helping of melted cheese on top. It's a popular and beloved Italian dish known for its rich, cheesy, and flavourful character.
So, next time you see al Forno on the restaurant menu, remember it is just a pasta bake.
Here's what you'll need to create a scrumptious, cheesy, and hearty conchiglie pasta al Forno:
- olive oil
- ground beef
- Italian seasoning
- chilli flakes
- pasta sauce
- salt and pepper
- mozzarella cheese
- parmigiano reggiano or parmesan
See the Substitutions section for more options.
I have used an oven-friendly pot so it can go from stove to oven. If you don't mind the extra dishes or if serving for guests, then you may assemble it in a fancy casserole dish and bake it. Let me show you how I made this pasta al forno with a few step pictures. Scroll down for the recipe card.
While you prep the meat sauce, have a pot of salted water boiling to cook the pasta to al-dente as per pack instructions. Also if baking immediately, preheat the oven to 180°C.
In an oven-friendly shallow saute pan, heat olive oil and brown the ground beef over medium heat.
Break it into crumbles as it cooks. When it's all nice and brown, drain off any excess fat, if you see too much. (This is one of the reasons I start with browning the meat before adding onion.)
Add and sauté the chopped onions and garlic until they're soft and fragrant.
Season with salt, pepper and Italian seasonings or dried oregano, salt, and pepper.
Add the pasta sauce or crushed tomatoes and simmer this saucy goodness for about 10 to 15 minutes.
Remove the pot from the hob and gently stir in the ricotta cheese.
Add the drained pasta and use a wooden spatula to mix. At this point, if the sauce is too thick, you may add a ladle of pasta water.
Use the back of the spoon to level the pasta layer. Then, cover the top with shredded mozzarella and grated parm. You can add more cheese than specified.
Bake in the preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until the cheese is melted and with golden spots.
Once out of the oven, garnish with some fresh basil. It'll make your dish look and taste even better. I missed doing it because we couldn't wait to dig in.
You can get creative with substitutions in your pasta bake to suit your preferences or dietary restrictions. Here are a few ideas I woulg suggest:
- Meat: If you're not a fan of ground beef, you can swap it out for ground turkey, or chicken. You may also add your favourite sausage for a hearty meal. For a lighter or vegetarian version, skip the meat and use mushrooms or chickpeas.
- Pasta: Here I have used conchiglie but ziti, penne, rigatoni or macaroni also works well.
- Cheeses: Experiment with cheese varieties. Try using provolone, cheddar, or a mix of different Italian cheeses for unique flavours.
- Sauce: Though I have used store-bought Arrabbiata sauce here, I have previously made it with fresh marinara or just passata or canned crushed tomatoes. If you're not a fan of tomato sauce, consider using a creamy Alfredo sauce or a pesto sauce for a different taste profile.
- Herbs and Spices: Customize the flavour by switching up Italian seasoning with dried basil, oregano, or thyme. Adjust the chilli flakes to control the level of spiciness.
- Ricotta: If you're not a fan of ricotta, cottage cheese can be a suitable substitute for creaminess.
If you are a fan of fusion food or just want to make it differently, then here are some interesting ideas you can try with your pasta al Forno:
- Vegetarian: Skip the meat altogether and load up on colourful veggies like mushrooms, bell peppers, and spinach.
- Seafood: Swap the beef for seafood, like shrimp or crab, for a seafood pasta al forno. A creamy Alfredo sauce can complement this variation nicely.
- Middle Eastern: Go Arabic by using lamb, feta cheese, and spices like thyme.
- Pesto: Instead of a tomato-based sauce, use a generous amount of basil pesto for a flavorful and vibrant green pasta al forno.
- Mexican: Give it a Mexican spin by using ground beef, enchilada sauce, and a blend of Mexican cheeses. Don't forget to top it with jalapeños and sliced avocados.
Some of these options are on my must-try list! Don't wait, get creative and have fun in the kitchen!
Here's what you'll need in terms of equipment to make your delicious pasta al Forno:
- Large skillet or saute pan: For sautéing the beef, onions, and garlic, as well as simmering the sauce.
- Pot: To cook the pasta until it's al dente.
- Baking dish: If your skillet or pan is not oven-friendly, then you'll need a baking dish to layer and bake your pasta al forno.
- Wooden spoon or spatula for stirring and tossing the ingredients.
- Grater: If your Parmesan cheese and mozzarella cheese aren't pre-grated, you'll need a grater to shred it.
Apart from these the obvious ones are the oven, oven mittens, cutting board and knife!
When it comes to storing your leftover pasta al forno, here's what you can do:
Refrigeration: Allow any leftover pasta to cool to room temperature. Then, cover the baking dish with plastic wrap or foil and place it in the refrigerator. It should stay good for 3-4 days.
Freezing: If you have a lot of leftovers or want to save some for later, you can freeze it. Transfer portions of the pasta into airtight containers or freezer bags. Label them with the date and place them in the freezer. It can stay good for about 2-3 months.
Reheating: To reheat, you can use the microwave or oven. If it's from the fridge, the microwave is quicker. For frozen pasta, let it thaw in the fridge overnight and then reheat in microwave or preheated oven.
Keep in mind that while it's safe to eat after this time, pasta dishes like this are best when enjoyed fresh. So, whether you're saving some for later or cleaning up the leftovers, you've got options to keep your pasta al forno tasty and safe.
Make sure to boil the pasta to slightly undercooked or "al dente." It will finish cooking in the oven while absorbing the delicious flavours of the sauce. This prevents your pasta from becoming mushy during baking and ensures that perfect, satisfying texture in every bite.
Of course! While ziti or penne are common choices, you can use your favourite small pasta shape. Just remember to cook it al dente, so it doesn't become too soft during baking.
Yes, you can assemble it in advance, refrigerate it, and then bake it when you're ready. It's a great make-ahead dish for busy days or entertaining.
Absolutely! You can use plant-based meat substitutes, vegan cheeses, and dairy-free ricotta to make a vegetarian or vegan version of this dish.
Definitely! You can add vegetables like mushrooms, bell peppers, spinach, or zucchini for added flavour and nutrition.
A simple salad, garlic bread, or a side of roasted vegetables make excellent companions to this hearty dish.
What is al forno in italian food?
In Italian cuisine, "al forno" refers to dishes that are baked in the oven. It refers to a cooking technique where ingredients are assembled. Pasta is cooked al dente, mixed with meat or veggies in sauce, topped with cheese, and baked until hot and bubbly. The result is a comforting cheesy, and meaty pasta casserole.
Both dishes are baked and can include meat, cheese, and sauce, but the choice of pasta and layering style sets them apart. Lasagna has a more structured and layered presentation, while pasta al forno is a bit more flexible and allows for different pasta shapes and a more blended texture.
Looking for other ground beef recipes? Try these:
Pasta al Forno
- 2 tablespoon olive oil extra virgin
- 300 grams ground beef
- 1 medium onion diced finely
- 2 to 3 garlic cloves minced
- 2 teaspoon Italian seasoning
- 1 teaspoon chilli flakes
- 380 ml pasta sauce (or use 2 cups marinara)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 100 grams shredded mozzarella cheese
- ½ cup ricotta cheese
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan cheese)
- 250 grams pasta of your choice (can use any short pasta)
- Preheat your oven to 180°C (350°F) and don't forget to keep a pot of water with salt to boil for cooking the pasta.
Cook the meat in the sauce:
- Heat olive oil in a large skillet or oven-friendly shallow saute pot over medium heat.2 tablespoon olive oil
- Add the ground beef and cook it until it is nicely browned and crumbled. Remember to drain any excess fat.300 grams ground beef
- Toss in your diced onion and minced garlic, and sauté them until they're softened and aromatic.1 medium onion, 2 to 3 garlic cloves
- Sprinkle Italian seasoning and chilli flakes and mix through.2 teaspoon Italian seasoning, 1 teaspoon chilli flakes
- Pour in the pasta sauce or crushed tomatoes and season with salt and pepper to taste. Let this saucy goodness simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes.380 ml pasta sauce, Salt and pepper to taste
- While the sauce is simmering, take time to boil and drain the pasta as per pack instructions for al dente.250 grams pasta of your choice
Assemble for baking
- Remove the pot from the hob and stir in the ricotta cheese and boiled pasta.½ cup ricotta cheese
- Spread the shredded mozzarella cheese and grated Parmesan cheese to cover all of the pasta.100 grams shredded mozzarella cheese, ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Bake and serve
- Place the pot uncovered in the preheated oven and bake it for 20-25 minutes, or until it's all bubbly and the cheese on top is golden brown.
- Once it's out of the oven, let it cool for a couple of minutes. Then, garnish with some fresh basil if you want. Finally, serve up your mouthwatering pasta al forno and enjoy the deliciousness!
Recipe adapted from MasterClass.