Three Cheese Ziti al Forno

You'll find many versions of the classic Italian Ziti al Forno in the world. This version uses sweet Italian sausage and three cheeses all baked together with a rich creamy tomato sauce. It makes the house smell terrific and welcomes everyone to the table.

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Oven Baked Pasta

Ziti al Forno literally translates to “ziti in the oven” and often refers to any variety of baked pasta dish with an Italian flare. This recipe for three cheese ziti al forno uses tubular ziti as the pasta, but you could easily substitute any other pasta shape that you like. Ziti is very much like penne, except the ends of the pasta tube are cut straight instead of at an angle. Ziti is a little smaller than rigatoni, but bigger than mezzani. Any of these pasta shapes – penne, rigatoni, mezzani – or even a different shape altogether would work well.

Whichever you choose, however, make sure you cook the pasta properly, leaving just a little bite to the pasta since it will continue to absorb liquid and cook once it’s in the oven. You can read more about how to properly cook pasta here. Once the pasta is cooked, resist the urge to rinse it. By rinsing it, you’ll wash away any of the starches on the pasta and the sauce won’t stick as well to the noodles. 

Ziti Sauce

The next stage in the recipe is to make the delicious creamy tomato meat sauce. I like to use raw sweet Italian sausage, but if you want a little kick try using hot Italian sausage instead – or a combination of both. You can opt for slicing the raw sausage (a bit messy and difficult), but I prefer to remove chunks of sausage from the casing and brown those chunks. They are then basically mini sausage meatballs – yum!

When the sausage is no longer pink and the onion has softened, it’s time to add the canned tomatoes. I’m a big believer in always buying whole canned tomatoes and stocking up on your favorite brand. I find that when it comes to tomatoes, whole tomatoes taste better than those that have been further processed and chopped or puréed in the factory. In addition, chopped canned tomatoes are treated so that they remain in chunks better when heated. There are some occasions when that is desirable, but for the most part, I like to use whole tomatoes and then purée or chop them myself. For this three cheese ziti al forno recipe, crush the tomatoes by hand, but make sure you’re wearing an apron when you do!

Finally, a little cream and the first of three cheeses, the Parmesan, are added to the pan. This is what makes this ziti sauce so luxurious and decadent. 

Creamy tomato sauce in a sauté pan with a spoon sticking out of it.

The Cheeses for Ziti al Forno

The only thing left to do is to put this dish together and send it to the oven. That’s where the other two cheeses come into play. Fontina cheese is a nutty cheese that melts really well. Sprinkle grated Fontina all over the sauce-covered pasta. Fresh mozzarella also melts well, but since we’re adding slices of it, the cheese will melt into pools giving a little variety to each spoon or forkful that you take. Nestle the mozzarella slices into the pasta, sprinkle with a little more Parmesan cheese and send the dish to the oven.

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Ziti al forno assembled in a white oval ceramic dish and a spoon alongside.

Make Ahead Ziti al Forno

This is a perfect dish to make ahead for a dinner party. You could prepare the entire dish up to this point – fully assembled in the casserole dish – keep it in the refrigerator if dinner is longer than a couple hours away, and then just bring it to room temperature and bake it about an hour before you want to serve it. Or, you can also prepare all the components of the dish ahead of time – make the ziti sauce, cook the pasta, slice and grate the cheeses – and then assemble the ingredients and bake the dish just before serving. 

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A spoon lifting some ziti al forno out of the ceramic casserole dish.

Individual Ziti al Forno

While this recipe calls for all the ingredients to go into one big dish to be served family style, you could also make individual ziti al forno casseroles using ramekins or mini gratin dishes and serve everyone their own entrée. That way, there’ll be no fighting about who got more! 

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A bowl of ziti al forno next to a large white ceramic dish with more ziti al forno inside and a few slices of bread.

Featured Recipe Techniques

More about the skills used in this recipe.

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How to Cook Pasta

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Three Cheese Ziti Al Forno   

  • Prep Time: 25 m
  • Cook Time: 40 m
  • Total Time: 1 h 5 m
  • Servings:
    6

Ingredients

  • 1 pound dried ziti
  • 1 pound Italian sausage casings removed and broken into 1-inch pieces.
  • ½ onion diced
  • 1 clove garlic mined
  • 28 ounce can peeled tomatoes
  • 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • ¾ cup Parmesan cheese divided
  • 6 ounces grated Fontina cheese divided
  • 8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese
  • chopped fresh parsley for garnish

Instructions

  1. Bring a large stockpot of salted water to a boil. Boil the pasta for 9 minutes. Drain, do not rinse the pasta and set it aside.
  2. Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the sausage to the sauté pan and cook until it starts to brown. Add the onion and garlic and continue to cook until the onions are soft and the sausage is no longer pink. Strain off any grease from the pan and discard.
  3. Add the canned tomatoes (breaking them up with your hands or a wooden spoon), crushed tomatoes, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper. Stir well and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes.
  4. Add the heavy cream and ½ cup of the Parmesan cheese to the sauce. Stir until combined and simmer for a few more minutes.
  5. Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.
  6. Place the cooked pasta in a 9-inch by 13-inch casserole dish. Pour the sauce over the pasta. Sprinkle the Fontina cheese over the sauce and stir to evenly coat the pasta with sauce. Slice the fresh mozzarella into thin slices and place the slices on top of the pasta. Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan cheese on top and transfer the casserole to the oven.
  7. Bake at 350°F for 30 to 40 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese has browned.
  8. Let the pasta bake rest for at least 15 minutes to cool to an edible temperature, sprinkle the chopped fresh parsley on top and serve with a salad and crusty bread.
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Comments (4)Post a Reply

  1. Hi Meredith , I am sorry I haven’t tried known of your recipes but I will I promise. When I do I well email you the dishes. I love your pictures of your dogs . They make me smile . Thank you for sharing. Lorrie , I loved watching u on the QVC

  2. Hi Meredith,
    I cannot wait to make this! I need to shop for ingredients and then I will be set.
    I really miss you on the Q, but having this site is great. I wish you would get some of the 3 piece bakers that you sold there. I would love to have another set. They are the best bakers that I own. There was a loaf pan, 8×8 and 9×13 and I have the aqua. I just love it for things like this ziti.

  3. Hi Meredith,
    I just finished feeding my hungry husband your Three Cheese Ziti Al Forno, and it was quite a hit! He finished his first (rather large) serving and went straight back to the casserole dish for seconds. That serving was devoured as well, in short order I might add.
    By the way, I, too, thoroughly enjoyed the dish, and it is a perfect meal for a chilly winter day. Thank you for sharing this delicious recipe!

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