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How to Make Nonna’s Pasta al Forno

Nonna’s Pasta al Forno recipe is the ultimate Italian comfort food.  Nonna baked her pasta with ground meat, zucchini, mushrooms, and lots of cheese! It might sound like an odd combination, but It is one of the best pasta recipes you will ever eat!

Pasta al forno with ground meat, mushrooms and melted cheese on a white plate with a sprig of basil.

Our family always had lunch together on Sunday afternoons, and Nonna often made pasta al forno for us.  With plenty of melty cheese and a meaty sauce infused with flavors from fresh zucchini and earthy mushrooms, it was a dish we could not wait to dig into.  I was such a picky eater growing up, but Nonna’s baked pasta was a dish I never refused. 

Pasta al Forno which means oven-baked pasta in Italian originated in southern Italy and Sicily.  Italian families have their favorite versions of baked pasta they often serve on special occasions like Pasta Rustica with Sausage.  

Most people are familiar with the classic Italian recipe of baked pasta mixed with a thick meaty red sauce and lots of mozzarella cheese.  This is delicious, but wait till you try my Nonna’s recipe!

Nonno and Nonna always had a large vegetable garden that produced an abundance of zucchini.  There was so much of it each year that I am not surprised Nonna found a way to incorporate it into a gorgeous pasta bake!  She also used it in her amazing Zucchini and Potato Soup which is another of her must-try recipes. 

Her pasta al forno combines a ground pork, beef, and veal mixture, with sauteed onion, zucchini, mushrooms, and a little tomato sauce to make a tasty filling for the pasta.  Then plenty of mozzarella and Pecorino Romano cheese is added to create a decadent baked pasta dish. 

Baked pasta in white rectangular casserole dish with cheese melted on top.

Nonna had a couple of secrets that made her pasta al forno special.  First is cooking the meat and vegetables separately until they release their juices.  Then she combined everything including all the delicious cooking liquid, with some crushed tomatoes to make a flavorful sauce.  

The second is that she added a beaten egg to the sauce before mixing it with the pasta and cheese.   The egg acts as a binder and gives the sauce a creamy texture.  

I consider this my favorite childhood comfort food, so I wanted to replicate Nonna’s recipe.  I am pleased to say that this pasta al forno got rave reviews from my family!  I think Nonna Campo would be proud!  Yeah!  

Ingredients

Ground Meat:  Equal parts of ground beef, pork, and veal.  You may find this sold as meatloaf mix in the grocery store.

Sliced White Mushrooms: You can also use porcini mushrooms if you prefer a meatier flavor.

Zucchini: Cut into cubes.  Nonna used the Sicilian zucchini (Cucuzza) from her garden, but I used the common green zucchini from the grocery store.

White or Yellow Onion:  Diced

Chicken Broth: Homemade or store-bought are fine, but I recommend a low-sodium option, so you control how you season the sauce.

Crushed Tomatoes: You can also substitute tomato puree or tomato sauce.

Large Egg: Bring the egg to room temperature and beat it before adding it to the sauce.  It must be at room temperature, to mix easily into the sauce.

Rigatoni Pasta:  Any short pasta shape with ridges works well in baked pasta. The ridges will hold the sauce nicely! Make sure to buy the best quality pasta by following my essential guide.

Mozzarella: I recommend using a brick of mozzarella that you can cube yourself, rather than the pre-shredded variety.  The cubes will create pockets of melted cheese throughout the pasta.  

Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese:   I love the intense flavor of the pecorino, but you can substitute parmesan cheese. 

Step By Step Instructions 

4 photos: cooked mushrooms in a skillet, cooked zucchini cubes in a skillet, browned ground meat in a skillet and all combined in a sauce.

1. Make the Sauce and Pasta

  • Heat olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat.  Add the ground meat to the skillet, season with salt and black pepper, and brown until all the pink is gone. Transfer the meat, and any juices to a bowl.  
  • Add a little olive oil to the pan and toss in the mushrooms.  Season with salt and pepper and cook until they release their liquid and are just tender.  Transfer the mushrooms and their juices to a bowl.  
  • Add a little more olive oil to the pan and sauté the onion until it is translucent then add the zucchini, salt, and pepper and cook until the zucchini begins to soften.  
  • Return the ground meat and mushrooms to the sauté pan and stir in the crushed tomatoes and chicken broth.  Cook uncovered over low heat until the sauce thickens slightly and season to taste. Remove the sauce from the heat and let it cool down slightly.  Stir the beaten egg into the sauce until it is completely combined.
  • While the sauce is cooling, bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Stir in the pasta and add a generous amount of salt.    Cook the pasta until it is al dente.  
A baked pasta with cubed cheese before it goes in the oven and then when it comes out with the cheese are melted.

2. Assemble and Bake

  • Strain the pasta, return it to the pan, or pour it into a large bowl.  Stir the sauce into the pasta and mix well.
  • Pour half the pasta and sauce into a 9″-13″ baking dish.  Top with half the mozzarella and pecorino cheese.  Repeat with the remaining pasta and sauce mixture and finish with the rest of the mozzarella and grated cheese.  
  • Cover with aluminum foil and bake in a pre-heated 350-degree F oven for 20-25 minutes or until the cheese has melted completely.  
  • Uncover and place under the broiler for 1-2 minutes so that the cheese bubbles and begins to turn golden brown.

Variations

  1. A tasty meat sauce option would be to use half Italian sausage and half ground beef rather than the meatloaf mix.  
  2. If you want to make spicy,  add red pepper flakes to the onion and zucchini mixture.  
  3. Try using scamorza cheese or smoked mozzarella in place of regular mozzarella.  It will add a nice smokey flavor to the pasta. 
A dish of baked pasta set in front of the casserole of the same pasta.

Cooking Tips

  • Reserve a cup of pasta cooking water.  If the sauce seems too thick, when you mix it with the pasta, add some reserved water to loosen it.
  • ​Since you have cooked everything in advance the pasta does not need to bake long.  If you leave it in the oven too long the pasta may get too soft.
  • Watch the pasta carefully while it is under the broiler.  The cheese can burn quickly.
  • The vegetable meat sauce can be made up to two days in advance and kept refrigerated.  The sauce acquires a richer taste as the flavors have time to meld together. 
  • You can assemble and refrigerate the pasta dish several hours ahead and bake it just before serving.   If you bake straight from the refrigerator, add a few minutes to the cooking time because the pasta will be cold.

FAQ’s

Can you freeze this rigatoni al forno recipe?

Yes leftover pasta can be frozen in airtight containers for up to 2 months.  Let them sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before reheating in the microwave.

What does “al dente” mean?  

Al dente means “to the tooth” in Italian. Pasta or risotto that is al dente is cooked to the point of being tender but still firm.  You should not be able to see any deep white in the center of the pasta but it should not be soft. 

A close up of baked pasta in a white dish in front of a bowl of olives and another of grated cheese.

Other Italian Pasta Recipes

There are few things as good as genuine Italian pasta dishes.  There are so many options with pasta that it is easy to find something that pleases the whole family.

Pasta alla Norma is a classic Sicilian dish that combines a simple but rich tomato sauce with creamy fried eggplant and grated ricotta salata. This dish is flavorful and satisfying. You will want to put this recipe on your repeat list!

Some of our favorites include classics like Bucatini alla Carbonara and Paccheri Amatriciana.  Both are easy pasta sauce recipes made with simple ingredients that deliver an abundance of flavor.

One of my husband’s all-time favorite dishes is Italian Pasta with Broccoli Sauce.  The broccoli is combined with cheese to create a delicious silky sauce. This is a great recipe if you want to entice your kids to eat broccoli!

For the meat sauce lovers out there, my Mafalda with Vodka Sauce and SausageShort Rib Ragu, and Rigatoni with Bolognese will absolutely hit the spot!

I love to get your feedback so if you tried this Pasta al Forno with Zucchini and Mushrooms or any other recipes on this website, please leave me a comment below.  I hope you enjoy our recipes and look forward to hearing from you!

You can also follow me on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest for more recipes your family will love!

Nonna’s Pasta al Forno Recipe

Pasta al forno with ground meat, mushrooms and melted cheese on a white plate with a sprig of basil.

Nonna’s Pasta al Forno, Italian Oven Baked Pasta

My Nonna made this pasta dish all the time when we were growing up. Her twist on baked pasta combines a meat sauce with zucchini, mushrooms and plenty of gooey mozzarella cheese! It hearty, comforting and delivers amazing flavor! Perfect for Sunday dinner with the family or a special occasion any time of the year!
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Baking 20 minutes
Total Time 1 hour 15 minutes
Course First course, Main Course
Cuisine Italian
Servings 8 servings
Calories 640 kcal

Equipment

  • 1 9" x 13" Baking Pan

Ingredients
  

  • 1 lb. Meatloaf Mix pork, veal and beef
  • 12 oz Mushrooms white, sliced
  • 2 Zucchini small
  • ¾ cup Onion about 1 medium, diced
  • 4 tbsp Olive Oil
  • 2 cups Chicken Broth low sodium
  • 1 cup Crushed Tomatoes
  • 16 oz Rigatoni Pasta or other short pasta
  • 1 Egg large, beaten
  • 16 oz Mozzarella cubed
  • ¾ cup Pecorino Romano Cheese grated
  • 2 tsp Salt Kosher, +more for pasta water
  • 1 tsp Black Pepper

Instructions
 

  • Heat 2 tbsp. olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat.  Add the ground meat to the skillet, season with ½ tsp salt and ¼ tsp black pepper, and brown until all the pink is gone. Transfer the meat, and any juices to a bowl.
  • Add 1 tbsp. olive oil to the pan and toss in the mushrooms.  Season with ½ tsp salt and ¼ tsp pepper and cook until they release their liquid and are just tender.  Transfer the mushrooms and their juices to a bowl.
  • Add another tbsp. of olive oil to the pan and sauté the onion until it is translucent then add the zucchini, ½ tsp. salt, and ¼ tsp. pepper and cook until the zucchini begins to soften.
  • Return the ground meat and mushrooms to the sauté pan and stir in the crushed tomatoes, chicken broth, ½ tsp salt and ¼ tsp pepper.  Cook uncovered over low heat until the sauce thickens slightly then season to taste. Remove the sauce from the heat and let it cool down slightly.  Stir the beaten egg into the sauce until it is completely combined.
  • While the sauce is cooling, bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Stir in the pasta and add a generous amount of salt.    Cook the pasta until it is al dente follow the package instructions.  
  • Strain the pasta, return it to the pan, or pour it into a large bowl.  Stir the sauce into the pasta and mix well.
  • Pour half the pasta and sauce into a 9"-13" baking dish.  Top with half the mozzarella and pecorino cheese.  Repeat with the remaining pasta and sauce mixture and finish with the rest of the mozzarella and grated cheese.  
  • Cover with aluminum foil and bake in a pre-heated 350-degree F oven for 20-25 minutes or until the cheese has melted completely.  Uncover and place under the broiler for 1-2 minutes so that the cheese bubbles and begins to turn golden brown.

Video

YouTube video

Notes

Cooking Tips

  • Reserve a cup of pasta cooking water.  If the sauce seems too thick, when you mix it with the pasta, add some reserved water to loosen it.
  • ​Since you have cooked everything in advance the pasta does not need to bake long.  If you leave it in the oven too long the pasta may get too soft.
  • Watch the pasta carefully while it is under the broiler.  The cheese can burn quickly.
  • The vegetable meat sauce can be made up to two days in advance and kept refrigerated.  The sauce acquires a richer taste as the flavors have time to meld together. 
  • You can assemble and refrigerate the pasta dish several hours ahead and bake it just before serving.   If you bake straight from the refrigerator, add a few minutes to the cooking time because the pasta will be cold.
 
Scroll up for Recipe Variations and Frequently Asked Questions.

Nutrition

Serving: 1servingsCalories: 640kcalCarbohydrates: 51gProtein: 39gFat: 33gSaturated Fat: 13gPolyunsaturated Fat: 2gMonounsaturated Fat: 10gTrans Fat: 0.003gCholesterol: 116mgSodium: 1365mgPotassium: 573mgFiber: 4gSugar: 6gVitamin A: 618IUVitamin C: 14mgCalcium: 428mgIron: 3mg
Keyword ground meat, cheese, tomato, mushrooms, pasta, oven baked
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