Pasta al Forno, also called timballo di pasta, is a baked pasta dish from Italy. There are so many variations, but a pasta al forno recipe typically contains béchamel, tomato sauce, pasta, and cheese.
Once November and December hit, I settle myself squarely into comfort food mode. I want meals to warm my entire body up from top to bottom. In some cases, I want my meal to send me straight to snoozeville. That’s the complete, unadulterated comfort I’m after in the colder months.
This pasta al forno recipe is one such dish. It is RICH–unapologetically so–and is just the kind of cheesy comfort you need on a cold night. This baked pasta dish is akin to a big hug. It’s that good and that comforting.
If you’re wondering how a cheesy, oven-baked pasta dish with béchamel and tomato sauce is any different than lasagna…then you’re wondering the same thing I am. Tasting Table says that pasta al forno typically doesn’t include béchamel, but everything I’ve read points to pasta al forno containing lots of cheese, tomato sauce, and béchamel. Though, many variations do exist of both lasagna and pasta al forno.
I usually find lasagna to be more structured, whereas this pasta al forno recipe has much less structure, and the pasta, cheese, and sauces all melt and mix together in the oven. There are also many different types of timballo di pasta too. Some are very structured, come out looking like a pie, and can even be cut into perfect slices. Others are similar to mine, where it’s more like a saucy pasta casserole.
Many recipes I’ve seen for pasta al forno will include a meat of some variety like sausage or ground meat like pork, veal, or beef. Since this was already going to be an incredibly rich, heavy dish, I decided to omit the meat and go with mushrooms instead. Feel free to fry up some sausage or beef before cooking the mushrooms and add it back in with the tomatoes, though!
How to make this pasta al forno recipe:
Similar to lasagna, this recipe will make a lot of messy dishes and a bit of time. Fortunately, the finished product is totally worth it.
First, make your sauce. You can do this the night before to save yourself some time. Start with mushrooms, then onions, and then a big splash of sweet vermouth. I love the sweetness of sweet vermouth against earthy mushrooms and tangy tomatoes. You can skip this or use red wine if you prefer. From there, throw in all your tomatoes, fresh basil, and fresh parsley, and simmer the sauce for 30 minutes.
Once your tomato sauce is simmering, boil a big pot of water and cook the pasta. Drain it and transfer it to a big bowl. Add ¾ of the sauce and toss to coat.
Next, make the béchamel and set it aside.
From there, it’s all assembly. Layer the remaining sauce, half the pasta, and half the béchamel. Finish the first layer with half the mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Repeat a second layer–pasta, sauce, béchamel, and the remaining cheese–and then add freshly ground black pepper on top.
Throw this beauty in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Once it’s done baking, I like the broil the top until golden brown.
Looking for more comfort food? Check my archives!
Pasta al Forno
- Wide pot
- Large pot
- Medium pot
- 9×13 Baking Dish
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil plus more if needed
- 1 pound mushrooms wiped clean and thinly sliced
- 1 yellow onion peeled and diced
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and minced
- ½ teaspoon dry thyme
- Crushed red pepper to taste
- ¼ cup sweet vermouth
- 28- ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 8- ounce jar tomato sauce of choice
- Pinch of sugar
- 10 basil leaves roughly chopped
- ⅓ cup fresh parsley minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ¼ cup butter
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2½ cups whole milk warmed in the microwave for 1–2 minutes
- Pinch of white pepper
- 16 ounces rigatoni
- 6 ounces grated mozzarella
- 4 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Fresh basil for serving
Prepare the mushroom-tomato sauce:
- Preheat oven to 400ºF.
- Heat neutral oil in a wide pot over medium-high heat. Add half the mushrooms and cook for 8–10 minutes until they turn golden brown and crisp up around the edges. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a bowl. Add more oil and the remaining mushrooms and cook an additional 8–10 minutes. Transfer to the bowl of mushrooms.
- Add the onion to the pot and cook for 5–6 minutes until it softens. Return the mushrooms to the pot and add the garlic, dry thyme, and a big pinch of crushed red pepper.
- Turn the heat to high, and as soon as the mushrooms begin sizzling hard in the pot, pour in the sweet vermouth. Stir to lift anything stuck to the bottom of the pot and bring it to a boil. Reduce heat and cook for 3–4 minutes.
- Add the crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce to the pot and boil. Add a pinch of sugar if you like. Reduce heat and stir in the basil and parsley. Simmer, uncovered, for 30–40 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
Cook the pasta:
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain and transfer to a large bowl. Add 3/4 of the sauce from the pot and toss to coat. Set aside.
Prepare the béchamel:
- Melt the butter in a pot over medium heat. Once bubbly and melted, add the flour. Stir it into the butter and cook for 1–2 minutes until nutty and fragrant.
- Add a ladle of the milk and constantly whisk until a slurry forms. Continue ladling in the milk, whisking after each addition, until all the milk has been incorporated and the sauce is smooth. Simmer over medium-low for 5–10 minutes or until the béchamel is thick. Season with white pepper and salt. Turn off the heat.
Assemble the casserole:
- Add half the remaining sauce to the bottom of a 9"x13" baking dish. Add half the pasta and smooth it into an even layer. Pour half the béchamel on top. Sprinkle with half the mozzarella and half the Parmigiano-Reggiano.
- Pour the remaining half of the pasta on top and cover with the remaining sauce. Use the back of your spoon to smooth everything into an even layer. Finish with the remaining béchamel and smooth it out. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano on top. Finish with freshly cracked black pepper.
Bake the pasta:
- Transfer to the oven and bake for 30 minutes until bubbly. At the end of cooking, turn on the broiler and broil the top for 1–2 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven and let stand for 5–10 minutes.
- Sprinkle fresh basil on top of the pasta and serve. Enjoy!