Guido Pedrelli, the mastermind behind Nonna Box, has honed his culinary expertise for decades, inspired by family feasts in Emilia-Romagna. Mentored by his restaurateur nonna, he mastered Italian classics and furthered his skills with professional culinary studies in desserts and gelato making from Mec3. Today, he shares this rich legacy and authentic recipes through Nonna Box.
Expertise: Italian cuisine, Pasta, Pizza, Pastry, Dessert
There are so many Italian baked pasta recipes (called pasta al forno in Italian), with the most common recipe made around the world being lasagna, as well as baked ziti to a lesser extent. The recipe we are proposing today is reminiscent of baked ziti, but a whole lot meatier and creamier! Keep reading to learn all about our easy recipe that is sure to become one of your favorites for a comfort food dish that is absolutely delicious.
Although baked penne pasta is traditionally served as a primo (first course which is then followed by a main course), it is hearty enough to stand as a meal on its own, perhaps accompanied by a green salad and some warm crusty garlic bread. We tried it and our whole family loved it, even the picky eaters.
What kitchen equipment and utensils do you need to make this easy recipe?
This great recipe is made in steps, so you will need a few pots and pans and other utensils, but nothing about this recipe is difficult, so don’t be discouraged by a few extra pans to wash.
Ingredients you will need to make baked penne pasta
The ingredients for this dish are all easily found in a normal supermarket, so print out the list and get shopping to make your family a delicious Italian dish that is one of our favorite recipes.
Penne pasta (1lb) – this dish calls for penne pasta (we prefer the ridged kind but smooth will work as well), but really any type of short pasta will work, for example, macaroni or rigatoni. Be sure to boil them in salted water but remove the pasta several minutes before it is al dente by removing several minutes from the cooking time indicated in the package directions so that the pasta finishes cooking while being baked in the oven.
Ground beef (12 oz) – we love a good ragu sauce, but that doesn’t mean we are purists. You can certainly substitute lean ground beef, ground turkey, Italian sausage, or even go vegetarian by substituting the same amount of minced raw vegetables such as zucchini, carrots, and celery in your tomato sauce.
Crushed tomatoes (14-oz can) – be sure that your tomatoes are crushed. If they come whole, you will want to cut them up before adding them. Other canned tomatoes will also work. This is not really a marinara sauce, but if you prefer a smooth sauce you can substitute it with tomato puree.
Extra virgin olive oil (4 tbsp) – a mild-flavored extra virgin olive oil is the best choice for this dish, as there are so many other flavors that you won’t really taste the oil.
Onion (1)– any type of onion will work just fine in this recipe, be sure to mince well so you don’t have any onion chunks in the finished dish (especially if you have picky eaters coming for dinner).
Dry white wine (1/4 cup)– this step of adding wine really helps mellow the meat sauce flavor, but you can add water instead if you don’t have it.
Kosher salt – you will need both coarse salt for the pasta water and fine salt for seasoning the dish.
Black pepper – we are partial to freshly ground pepper, but no worries if you don’t have it, any kind of pepper will do.
Unsalted butter (5 tbsp) – most butter in Italian grocery stores is without salt, so most Italian recipes call for unsalted butter, but if you use salted butter you can just add slightly less salt later in the recipe.
All-purpose flour (5 tbsp) – you just need a little to thicken the white sauce.
Parmigiano Reggiano (3/4 cup) – the perfect cheese for sprinkling on top, Parmigiano Reggiano makes this delicious recipe really pop, but if you don’t have it you can use grated Parmesan, Grana Padano, or even mozzarella if you prefer (see more about mozzarella later).
Milk (4 1/2 cups) – you can use whole milk, but reduced-fat milk is fine to use as well, although you might adjust by adding slightly more flour so that it thickens correctly.
Mozzarella (optional) – although not in the original recipe, many people love adding shredded mozzarella, either as a layer or on top. Be careful to remove any excess water from the mozzarella before using it in this recipe.
Basil or Parsley or Red Pepper Flakes (optional) – although these are all optional, you can certainly add some fresh basil, fresh parsley, or red pepper flakes to your marinara sauce if those are Italian spices that you like.
How to make easy baked penne pasta step by step
This recipe for baked penne does have many steps, but they are all very straightforward. Keep reading to learn how to make this baked penne like a pro.
Make the ragu sauce. To make the meat sauce, first heat the oil in a deep saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the finely chopped onions and cook until they soften (photo 1).
Add the ground meat and sauté it, lightly crushing it with a wooden spoon and then stir as it browns for about 10 minutes (photo 2).
Add the wine (photo 3) and stir every so often until it has evaporated. Scrape all the brown from the bottom and sides of the pot to enhance the flavor and add the crushed canned tomatoes (photo 4). Stir to incorporate and then reduce the heat and leave to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside, covered. You can also add red pepper flakes, fresh basil, or fresh parsley during this step if desired.
Make the besciamella. To make the white sauce, get a nonstick pan and melt the butter over low heat (photo 5).
Put the milk in a small pot and bring to a simmer.
When the butter has melted, stir in the flour (photo 6) and cook for 2 minutes (photo 7).
Add the hot milk slowly while whisking continuously to combine (photo 8). Keep whisking until the sauce is creamy and smooth and has thickened (about 12-15 minutes), then turn off the heat and add the Parmigiano Reggiano.
Add salt and pepper to taste, then cover and set aside. To assemble and bake, first, preheat the oven to 375°F.Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil, add coarse salt to the water, and then the penne pasta (photo 9). Cook pasta for about 5 minutes (photo 10), then drain in a colander. Note: It will not be completely cooked (still very very al dente) because you want it to finish cooking as it is baked in the oven.
Return the pasta to the pot and add the besciamella and ragu sauce (photo 11). Mix until all the pasta is thoroughly coated (photo 12).
Put the pasta mixture into a greased 9 x 13 casserole dish (or use parchment paper for easy cleanup) and bake in the oven for 20 minutes or until bubbling and golden.
Remove from the oven and sprinkle the remaining Parmigiano Reggiano on top. Let it rest for 15 minutes before cutting and serving so that you can remove a portion without it all falling apart.
Expert tips for making bechamel white sauce the Italian way
Making a bechamel can be daunting at first because there is a risk that it will come out lumpy or too thin. With just a few extra expert tips, you can gain confidence and make a thick, creamy white sauce you will love.
First, be sure to melt the butter over low heat and whisk continuously as you add the flour. The flour needs to cook, so be sure to keep it over low heat for a few minutes but do not let it brown!
Then, be sure to warm the milk before using it. When you add the hot milk you will need to pour it very slowly at first and again here you will need to whisk continuously.
Many people stop cooking the sauce when it is still runny, but if you cook for 12-15 minutes you will end up with a better thickness and texture. You will know it is ready when it begins to stick to the whisk in a nice thick coat. One last tip, add a dash of nutmeg for a truly Italian flavor.
Variations to the baked penne pasta
Switch out the white sauce with various substitutions in this baked penne recipe. For example, you can leave out the white sauce and instead add ricotta cheese or even cream cheese. We have seen recipes that even call for sour cream, creme fraiche or cottage cheese, but we really don’t recommend any of them as they would alter the flavor too much. Or, if you love mozzarella, you could leave out the bechamel and instead add a generous layer of shredded mozzarella in the middle of two layers of pasta and then more cheese again on top.
Substitute mild Italian sausage for the ground beef, but others are looking for a vegetarian option. So if you want to skip the meat ragu sauce, this is not a problem! Simply make the sauce vegetarian by leaving out the meat and instead add veggies such as zucchini, carrots, and celery.
Throw in bell peppers and garlic if that sounds yummy. You will start by finely chopping the veggies, either by hand or with a small stand mixer, and then adding them to the sauce recipe instead of the meat during the same step in the recipe. You should use roughly the same amount of veggies as you would have meat, so 12 oz cleaned, peeled, and finely chopped.
How long will baked penne pasta keep and how should I store it?
If you cover your baked penne dish once it has cooled completely with plastic wrap, or transfer it to an airtight container, it can keep in the refrigerator for 2 days. When you want to reheat the already-cooked pasta dish, simply freshen it up with a sprinkling of cheese on top and reheat it in the oven for 20 minutes or until the cheese is melted.
Can I freeze baked penne or make this dish ahead of time?
Yes, this dish can even be frozen! Freeze it in an oven-safe baking dish with an airtight cover. Do not defrost, but put it immediately into a pre-heated oven and add about 20 minutes of cooking time to the original recipe. You should cook the dish covered with tinfoil for extra time and only uncover it for the last 20 minutes. This great recipe can also be made ahead of time and then you can bake it upon the arrival of your guests. Simply start by layering penne pasta and when it is assembled cover it with tin foil and keep it in the fridge or a cool area until you are ready to bake it.
Baked Penne Pasta with Bechamel and Meat Sauce
There is something so comforting and satisfying about a baked pasta recipe. Pasta al forno reminds us of home and enjoying this Italian family tradition on a weekly basis. So try this easy baked penne recipe today and start your own family tradition.
Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven (or a deep sauce pan) over medium heat. Add the finely chopped onion and cook until soft, about 5 minutes.
Add the meat and sauté, breaking it up with the back of a wooden spoon and stirring until browned, about 10 minutes.
Add the wine and stir until it evaporates completely. Scrape all the browned bits from the bottom and sides of the pot and add the San Marzano crushed tomatoes. Stir to incorporate. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Some people like to add chopped fresh basil or fresh parsley at the very end, this is optional.
Put the milk in a small pot and bring to a simmer.
Stir in the flour and cook for 2 minutes.
Gradually add the simmering milk and whisk to combine.
Whisk continuously until the sauce is creamy and smooth, then turn off the heat and add the Parmigiano Reggiano.
Add salt and pepper to taste, then cover and set aside.
Many Italians add a dash of ground nutmeg to their white sauce, so you can add a pinch at the very end and stir in well.
FOR THE PASTA
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
In a large pot, bring 6 quarts of salted water to a boil.
Add the penne and let the pasta cook for about 5 minutes, then drain in a colander. Note: It will not be completely cooked, as it will finish cooking in the oven.
Return the pasta to the pot and add the pasta sauce (both the tomato sauce and the white sauce). Mix until all the pasta is thoroughly coated.
Pour the pasta mixture into a greased 9 x 13-inch baking dish or casserole dish (or use parchment paper for easy cleanup) and bake in the oven for 20 minutes or until bubbling and golden.
Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the reserved Parmigiano Reggiano. Let rest for 15 minutes before cutting and serving. Delicious!
If you love mozzarella cheese, you can add some shredded mozzarella cheese as a layer when you put it in the casserole dish as well as add the remaining mozzarella cheese on top and bake until the cheese is melted and browned. Another possibility is substituting the bechamel with mozzarella or ricotta cheese instead.