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.
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