*Cozy October is Here!
Here at PWWB, we always crave warm & hearty dishes as the seasons change. This month we’re featuring our favorite comfort food meals to cozy up with on a chilly evening. From long braises to simple, nostalgic flavors – & plenty of pasta! – Cozy October explores the many ways food brings joy & comfort this fall. ♡
Step Aside, Baked Ziti: Baked Rigatoni is the Ultimate Pasta Bake! 🙌🏼
I jokingly refer to this baked rigatoni recipe as “Better Than Baked Ziti.” There’s something about cheesy pasta bakes that I’ve always found absolutely crave-worthy. But, time & again baked ziti lets me down. In my experience, it’s often dry & overcooked all at once.
So, I got to work to create a recipe to satisfy my idea of the perfect pasta bake, & this baked rigatoni recipe is the result! There are 3 key factors that take this rigatoni bake to the next level:
- Sauciness. The rigatoni bakes in a homemade meat sauce made by quickly simmering Italian sausage with tomatoes, aromatic veggies, & wine. It’s hearty & rich in flavor, & there’s plenty of it to keep the rigatoni bake saucy & delicious – even after it’s cooked. No more dry pasta bakes!
- Al dente rigatoni. Rigatoni is the ideal pasta here because its ridges & wide opening capture plenty of meat sauce, & cooking just under al dente prevents the pasta from getting mushy as it bakes.
- Layers of cheese. Making baked rigatoni with ricotta, mozzarella, & parmesan creates the perfect mix of creamy & melty cheese while creating 2 layers of cheese & pasta ensures that every serving has an epic cheese pull. It’s SO good!
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This epic rigatoni bake is everything I ever want out of a pasta bake & I’m pretty sure you’re going to be obsessed too. It’s…
A CLASSIC REIMAGINED. Inspired by baked ziti, but made even better! Al dente rigatoni, flavorful homemade meat sauce, & 3 types of cheese create a baked pasta dish that’s far beyond average.
SUPER CHEESY. Layers of ricotta, mozzarella, & parmesan create the perfect creamy cheese pull. It’s next-level cheesy – no dry pasta bakes here!
A TOTAL CROWD-PLEASER. It’s hard not to love a cozy, cheesy, & hearty rigatoni bake, especially on a chilly day. Baked rigatoni is perfect comfort food meal, whether you’re having friends & family over for Sunday supper, feeding a holiday crowd, or looking for easy weeknight meal prep.
Baked ziti’s never been better! ♡ Read on to learn more about how to make Baked Rigatoni with Sausage & Ricotta, or jump straight to the recipe & get cooking!
This baked rigatoni recipe leans on simple yet flavor-packed ingredients, creating a meal that packs a big punch of flavor!
Full Recipe Directions, including step-by-step photos, are included in the Recipe Card, below.
Here’s what you need to make the best baked rigatoni recipe…
- Rigatoni – One of my all-time favorite pastas! I love to use smaller mezzi rigatoni for perfectly portioned bites, but you can also use standard rigatoni pasta or any other short noodles you love. Learn more about rigatoni below!
- Italian sausage – Making baked rigatoni with sausage creates an even heartier, richer flavor! Full-fat spicy pork sausage is ideal because its richness helps build a flavorful sauce in a short amount of time.
- Aromatics & spices – A blend of bell pepper, yellow onion, & garlic builds the aromatic base of the meat sauce, while dried Italian seasoning & fennel seeds reinforce the flavor of the sausage.
- White wine – Simmering the sauce with a dry, unoaked wine like Pinot Grigio creates restaurant-worthy richness in hardly any time.
- Tomatoes – A good amount of tomato paste creates depth, while a combination of crushed & diced fire-roasted tomatoes gives the baked rigatoni sauce great body & texture.
- Cheese – This baked rigatoni is layered with ricotta for creaminess & mozzarella for the perfect melty cheese pull. A sprinkling of parmesan adds an epic umami finishing touch.
What is Rigatoni?
Rigatoni is a tube-shaped pasta with a wide opening, square cut edges, & ridges down its length. The word rigatoni comes from the Italian word rigate, meaning striped, ridged, or grooved.
Rigatoni is the most superior tubular short pasta, IMO, & especially for baked pasta dishes. Its ridges help sauces & cheese adhere to each piece of pasta much better than pasta with smooth surfaces, like standard ziti. To take it a step further, I like to use mezzi rigatoni for this baked rigatoni recipe. It’s shorter than standard rigatoni, making it easier to take a fully loaded bite.
If you love baked pasta dishes, you’re probably also familiar with penne & ziti. Both pasta shapes are tubular like rigatoni, but there are a few differences to note:
- Rigatoni vs. penne ⇢ Penne has ridges like rigatoni but its shape is longer & thinner. It also has a smaller opening with angled ends, making it more difficult for a chunky sauce to get trapped in its hollow center. This is the main reason why I prefer not to use penne for this pasta bake.
- Rigatoni vs. ziti ⇢ Ziti is shorter & thicker than penne, making it closer in shape to rigatoni. It typically has a smooth exterior, though you can find rigate versions of ziti with ridges. Ziti is popular for pasta bakes because the hearty meat sauce gets trapped inside each piece of pasta, like rigatoni. The key difference for me is hearty rigatoni offers a more al dente bite than ziti.
How to Make Baked Rigatoni with Ricotta & Sausage
This baked rigatoni recipe starts with a quick & hearty meat sauce. Similar to the one used for our Spicy Italian Sausage & Peppers Pasta, this sauce is designed to achieve deep, rich, restaurant-worthy flavor in a very short amount of time – it’s so much better than jarred marinara sauce!
Full Recipe Directions, including step-by-step photos, are included in the Recipe Card, below.
Brown the veggies & sausage. Cook bell pepper & onion until fragrant, then add in sausage, breaking it apart into fine crumbles as it browns. Why? ⇢ This step is all about flavor! Browning is such an important process that creates a foundation of rich flavor for any homemade sauce.
Build the meat sauce. Stir in garlic, herbs, & tomato paste, cooking a few minutes longer, then deglaze the pan with white wine. Build the sauce by adding in crushed & diced tomatoes, spinach, & a little grated parmesan, then bring everything to a simmer.
Boil the rigatoni. While we normally recommend cooking pasta to al dente, it’s best to cook to just under al dente for this baked rigatoni recipe, draining it about 2 minutes before the time indicated on the package directions. Why? ⇢ The rigatoni will continue to cook as it bakes in the oven! Cooking just under al dente prevents it from turning to mush as it bakes.
Assemble the rigatoni bake. Toss the cooked rigatoni into the meat sauce, combining well. Layer half the pasta into a prepared baking dish, topping with ricotta & a good sprinkling of mozzarella cheese, then repeat. Why? ⇢ Building a rigatoni bake with layers ensures each bite has plenty of cheese. It’s a kind of lasagna-like effect, but way less fussy to put together!
Bake! Cover with foil & bake for about 25 minutes, until bubbling. I love to finish the baked rigatoni under the broiler for an irresistible golden finish. Tip! ⇢ Place the casserole dish on top of a sheet pan when it’s in the oven. Doing so helps prevent any potential oven messes, since the sheet pan captures any spillage or melty cheese as the rigatoni bakes.
When the baked rigatoni comes out of the oven, give it a little time to cool before digging in. The cheese & sauce settle, making the pasta much easier to scoop & serve.
This baked rigatoni is hearty enough to stand on its own, but serving it alongside some garlic bread or your favorite crusty bread is never a bad idea. Given its rich flavor, I like pairing it with a vegetable-forward side dish, like roasted veggies or a simple green salad tossed in PWWB’s All-Purpose Vinaigrette.
Time-Saving Tips: Make-Ahead Baked Rigatoni & Freezer-Friendly Leftovers
Make-Ahead Baked Rigatoni
Taking a moment to dice the bell peppers & onions ahead of time (aka mise en place) helps this baked rigatoni recipe come together faster during the week.
My personal favorite method for an easy baked rigatoni dinner is to assemble the whole thing ahead of time. When mealtime rolls around, all you have to do is pop it in oven.
See the Recipe Notes, below, for more meal prep & make-ahead guidance!
Storage & Freezing Leftovers
This baked rigatoni recipe serves up to 12 people, making it great for sharing at Sunday supper or a cozy girl’s night in. Even so, leftovers are to be expected! Store leftovers in your fridge for up to 4 days.
Leftover baked rigatoni is also incredibly freezer-friendly, so feel free to pop a few portions into the freezer for a quick & easy weeknight meal down the road. Check the Recipe Notes, below, for more guidance!
I can’t wait for you to try this Baked Rigatoni recipe! It’s an instant classic – we’re absolutely obsessed & I think you will be too!
If you do give it a try, be sure to let me know! Leave a comment with a star rating below. You can also snap a photo & tag @playswellwithbutter on Instagram. I LOVE hearing about & seeing your PWWB creations! ♡ Happy cooking!
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More Pasta Recipes, Please! 🍝
There’s something about cheesy pasta bakes that I’ve always found absolutely crave-worthy. But, in my experience, they can be kind of a letdown, often dry & overcooked all at once. So I set out to create a recipe to satisfy my cravings for the perfect pasta bake, & that’s how this baked rigatoni recipe came to be!
I jokingly refer to it as “Better Than Baked Ziti” or “Baked Ziti 2.0,” but every component has been really carefully crafted to create a pasta bake for the ages:
- Sauciness. This recipe starts with a quick & simple homemade meat sauce made of Italian sausage, loads of aromatics, tomatoes, & wine. There’s enough of it to create a beautifully saucy plate of pasta – even after it bakes! – & you’ll be surprised by how much richness it adds despite a relatively short simmer.
- Texture. Rigatoni is the ideal pasta here because its ridges & wide opening capture plenty of meat sauce. Try to look for mezzi rigatoni, & be sure to boil it just under al dente to ensure it doesn’t overcook as the pasta bakes.
- Cheesiness. This baked rigatoni is layered with creamy ricotta & melty mozzarella for a lasagna-like effect (without the fuss of assembling a lasagna!) so each serving has an epic cheese pull – everyone at the table will be so impressed!
It’s really the perfect pasta bake, & I think you’ll love it as much as we do. ♡ Happy cooking!
- 12 ounces mezzi rigatoni (see Recipe Notes)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound bulk spicy Italian sausage (see Recipe Notes)
- 1 bell pepper (yellow, orange or red), diced
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped or grated
- 2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- optional: up to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1 cup dry, unoaked white wine
- one 28-ounce can crushed fire roasted tomatoes
- one 14-ounce can diced fire roasted tomatoes (with their juices)
- 8 ounces flat leaf spinach
- 1 cup grated parmesan cheese (approx. 3 ounces), divided
- 8 ounces whole milk ricotta cheese, divided (heaping 3/4 cups)
- 4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese (approx. 16 ounces), divided
- kosher salt & ground black pepper, to season
- for serving, as desired: grated parmesan, finely chopped fresh basil leaves, finely chopped fresh parsley, etc.
- Boil the pasta: Generously season a large pot of water & bring to a boil. Add the rigatoni & cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is 2-3 minutes under al dente (“al dente” cooking time is typically included in package directions). Drain the pasta – do not rinse! – & set aside. (Learn more ⇢ How to Cook Pasta Perfectly Every Single Time!)
- Begin building the sauce – soften the veggies & brown the sauce: Add the olive oil to a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot & shimmering, add the bell pepper & onion, seasoning with 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened & fragrant, 4-5 minutes. Add the sausage to the skillet. Let it brown for 2-3 minutes, then use a wooden spoon to break it apart into fine crumbles. Continue to cook & crumble until the sausage is nicely browned & rendered, 2-3 minutes more. Stir to combine with the softened veggies.
- Cook the aromatics: Push the sausage & veggies to the side of the skillet & add the garlic, Italian seasoning, fennel seeds, & crushed red pepper flakes (if using) to the skillet such that everything comes into contact with the hot surface of the skillet. Cooking until just fragrant, about 30 seconds to 1 minute.
- Build the tomato sauce: Stir the tomato paste into the skillet, stirring to coat the sausage & veggies. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until deeply red. Deglaze the pan by slowly pouring in the white wine, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits that may have formed on the bottom of the pan. Once the wine is almost completely cooked off, add in the crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes (& their juices), spinach, & 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese. Stir to combine & wilt the spinach. Bring the mixture up to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low. Let the sauce simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, to thicken slightly & build flavor. Taste & adjust seasoning accordingly, then remove from the heat.
- Baked rigatoni assembly: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F, ensuring a rack is positioned in the upper third of the oven. Lightly spritz a large piece of foil & a 9×13 pan with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside. Add the rigatoni to the prepared tomato sauce, tossing well to ensure all of the pasta is coated. Transfer half of the pasta & sauce to the prepared baking dish. Dot 1/2 of the ricotta over the surface of the pasta, then sprinkle 1/2 of the shredded mozzarella cheese over top. Repeat by building one more layer – pasta & sauce, ricotta, mozzarella. Finish by sprinkling the remaining 1/2 cup grated parmesan over top.
- Bake the baked rigatoni: Place the pan on top of a baking sheet then cover with the prepared foil. Once the oven is preheated, transfer to the oven & bake 25 minutes, until the baked rigatoni is bubbling & the cheese is melted. Carefully remove the foil & turn the oven’s broiler on high. Broil the baked rigatoni about 5 minutes, keeping a close eye on it as it broils to make sure it doesn’t burn, until it’s as bubbly & golden brown as you like.
- Rest, slice, & serve: Carefully remove the baked rigatoni from the oven. Allow to cool slightly, then serve topped with additional grated parmesan or finely chopped fresh herbs as desired. Enjoy!
- Ingredient Notes:
- Mezzi rigatoni is slightly shorter than standard rigatoni, which is really nice for baked rigatoni since it creates more balanced bites – each bite gets a nice piece of pasta with plenty of meat sauce & cheese. I always use DeLallo Mezzi Rigatoni; their pastas are crafted in Italy using the best quality Italian wheat & they’re bronze die-extruded for superior texture. If you prefer to use full-sized rigatoni, go for it. You can also definitely make this recipe using any short pasta of choice – my top picks would be ziti, fusilli, medium shells, or these fun shellbows.
- Sausage: I highly recommend opting for full-fat pork sausage for this baked rigatoni, as its natural richness helps build an especially flavorful sauce in a relatively short amount of time. I love the way the light heat of spicy sausage helps balance the sweetness of tomatoes, but if you prefer to use mild or sweet Italian sausage, it’ll work great. If you prefer to use leaner ground turkey sausage or meatless crumbles, they will work – plan to use an extra tablespoon of olive oil to help compensate for the richness of pork sausage.
- Make-Ahead Baked Rigatoni: Since there are a number of different components involved in this baked rigatoni recipe, doing some prep work ahead of time is a great option for weeknight cooking or entertaining. There are 2 make-ahead approaches you can take depending on the amount of time you have to prep:
- Make-Ahead Approach #1 – 10-minute ingredient prep: Dice the bell pepper & onion up to 5 days ahead of time, storing in an airtight container in the refrigerator. At dinnertime, you can jump right into cooking – simple.
- Make-Ahead Approach #2 – Assemble the baked rigatoni in advance: Assemble the baked rigatoni in full (Steps 1-5), then store in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. At dinnertime, simply preheat & bake according to Steps 5-7, noting you may have to add 5-10 minutes of baking time to ensure the baked rigatoni warms through.
- Storage, Reheating, & Freezing:
- Storage & Reheating: Store any leftover baked rigatoni in airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Reheat in the microwave until warmed through.
- Baked Rigatoni Freezer Instructions: This baked rigatoni is also incredibly freezer-friendly. Transfer cooled leftovers to a freezer container or divide between multiple freezer containers for smaller portions – these are my absolute favorite freezer containers! – & freeze for up to 3 months. To thaw, place the frozen baked rigatoni in the refrigerator overnight or submerge the freezer container in room temperature water for a quicker thaw. Easily reheat in the microwave until warmed through.
Keywords: baked rigatoni, baked pasta recipe, rigatoni bake, baked rigatoni with spicy Italian sausage
Recipe by Jess Larson, Plays Well With Butter | Photography by KJ & Company, Kate Poskochil