Ziti al forno con polpette (oven pasta with meatballs)

Oven pasta is a very popular dish in Italy, especially during winter. This version of oven pasta comes traditionally from a region in the south of Italy called Puglia. Here they normally use ziti, a long type of pasta with a hole in the middle. Ziti comes from the word “fidanzati”, which means fiancé, and it was originally served only during weddings. Since this type of pasta is not always easy to find in shops, very often people replace it with rigatoni. Even if rigatoni is a short type of pasta, it has in fact a whole in the middle, which allows the sauce and the cheese to enter the pasta.

The reason why today I’m choosing to write about this dish is not only because it’s one of the comfort food that brings me back to my life in Italy, but also because it reminds me of all the fun that I used to have while cooking this dish when I was a student.

When I was at the university and wanted to impress your friends reproducing the “irreproducible” (because it’ll NEVER be like somebody’s grandmother’s!), I finally learnt from my flat mate how to cook the “original” ziti al forno. There’s something you might know about Italians; everyone believes that they own the most “original” and traditional recipe of that specific dish. It’s like saying “my grandmother invented it, we own the trademark!”. So, here goes this “original” recipe of ziti al forno from Puglia. I hope no Italian will be hurt in the process.

Beware – you will gain a few pounds only by reading through it! Also, if you are a university student, when you’re done, you may require a professional cleaning company to clean up your kitchen (and yourself!).


  • 500 g ziti; if you can’t find it, go for rigatoni
  • 200 g mozzarella, sliced in cubes
  • 50 g pecorino or parmesan cheese
  • 800 g tomato sauce
  • 1 big onion, very finely chopped
  • 4 – 6 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons of salt
  • 1 tablespoon of black pepper

For the meatballs

  • 250 g minced meat
  • 50 g pecorino or parmesan cheese
  • 1 clove of garlic, very finely chopped
  • 1 handful of parsley, very finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoon of bread crumble
  • 1 egg (medium)
  • 1 little red chili pepper, very finely chopped and without the seeds
  • 2 tablespoons of salt
  • 1 tablespoon of black pepper
  • a bit of red wine

Start with the sauce

  1. Make a “soffritto”, typically onion cooked in a pan with olive oil until golden
  2. Add the tomato sauce with some spices to flavor it (salt, pepper, parsley, basilicum and a bit of red wine if you like) and cook it on low fire for about 30 minutes

Prepare the meatballs

  1. Pre-heat the oven at 175 C / 350 F
  2. Mix all the ingredients together and make small meatballs, the size of a nut
  3. Put them in an oven pan and in the oven for 20 minutes
  4. Turn them around and continue cooking for other 10 minutes

Put everything together

  1. Boil some water in a pan, adding a bit of salt, and cook the pasta half-way through (about 4 minutes – it will continue cooking when in the oven)
  2. Drain the pasta and add to it a bit of tomato sauce so that it won’t stick
  3. Put together all the ingredients in an oven pan with high edges, one layer at the time like you’d do with lasagna: start with the pasta, then cover it up with the tomato sauce, the meatballs and the cheeses; then again another layer until you have finished the ingredients; the very last layer should be covered on tomato sauce and parmesan cheese finely grated)
  4. Cover all up with aluminum foil and put the pan in the center of the oven at 175 C / 350 F, for 25 minutes
  5. Get rid of the foil and continue cooking for other 10 – 15 minutes (or until the cheese has formed a nice and gold-ish crust)
  6. Take it out of the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes

Serves 6 people

Article and recipe written for Live To Eat by Melania Zampieri


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