Baked ziti an easy seller with plenty of variety
ollowing the history of ziti pasta is like walking through a carnival house of mirrors. Like a lot of Italian foods, ziti is used many different ways in all areas of Italy. Baked pastas are referred to as “pasta al forno” in Italy, which is said to date back to the middle ages where they were served at banquets and weddings. Today, pasta al forno is very popular in the towns of Southern Italy. Dishes like Pasta nell’alveare, or beehive pasta and the Sicilian pasta al Norma, which is named after an opera singer and consists of eggplant, basil and tomato, are a tribute to great Italian baked pastas.
To make matters more ziti complicated, the Italian chefs who came to the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century were sometimes forced to modify their own favorite baked ziti recipes for several reasons. Foremost was the still-unfamiliar American dining public and next was the scarcity of traditional raw materials found here. Because of these factors, many Americanized fillings and pasta shapes were, and still are, used in restaurants. Today, baked ziti is more likely to consist of different tubed pasta shapes, like the ridged penne or garganelli.
Ziti is Italian for “fiancé” and sometimes referred to as “macaroni of the bride” and is used extensively as a baked pasta. This moniker is said to be in reference to its use at weddings. Zitoni is referred to as “large fiancé.” It doesn’t have ridges and can be made up to 10 inches long. Zitoni is similar to the long “penne candela,” which is smooth also but has the diagonally cut ends that mimic a candle. Both of these pastas can and are cut in smaller tubes to fit baking dishes and bowls.
Here are some perfect toppings for a great baked ziti dish. It is up to you if you want to cook them beforehand. By doing this, you shorten the cook time and ensure the moisture level of the pasta al forno is right to cut pieces for your guests.
- Sausage, salami, meatballs, chicken, turkey and ground beef: This adds a heady flavor to all baked dishes. Sausage and beef inserted in small dollops or thin walls will release juices, but turkey and chicken should be cooked before cooking in any baked pasta. Meatballs are better cooked; otherwise, they will flatten. Salami, prosciutto di Parma and soppressata tend to get tough unless you slice them into strips or small chunks, but they release an amazing flavor to any dish.
- Onions, garlic, leek and scallion: These are a perfect base for baked ziti flavor.
Onions need to be sliced very thin or in small dice or they will be hard to cut. Leek is a perfect meat or egg companion and melts perfectly in this dish.
- Tomatoes: I use the chunky and sweet pear tomatoes that hold enough flavor and less liquid than fresh tomatoes. Oven-dried tomatoes are perfect for baked ziti but add time to the dish. I’ve tried sun-dried tomatoes and found them to be too chewy.
- Other vegetables: Celery and carrot are best pre-cooked in any baked pasta dish for obvious reasons. Flat leaf spinach adds a nice flavor to a heavy, pasta-laden bake. Fresh fennel cut into small dice adds a great crunch foil to the soft baked pasta and cheese. Fresh basil added at the last minute is spectacular. And, don’t forget the king of all baked pasta components — eggplant. This wonderful vegetable is perfect as it soaks up all the flavor of the sauce, meats and cheeses without disintegrating.
- Spices and other flavorings: Lemon zest (if you are using a cream sauce), anchovy filets (chopped fine), cinnamon, cumin, fennel seed, Calabrian chilies (chopped fine), pickled red onion, thyme, rosemary, chili flakes, fresh oregano and capers. Cooked kale, radicchio and even small-diced butternut squash with cream and sage makes for a delicious baked pasta.
- Cheeses: Hard grated cheeses like Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano act as flavorful glue in any baked ziti. But, remember, they can burn if left on near the outside. Whole milk ricotta will add creaminess but is best mixed in with the pasta to alleviate steamy pockets of goo. Fresh and aged mozzarella is usually a “must” for the top of baked pasta. And small bites of fresh mozzarella inside the bake breaks up the pasta monotony.
Ziti di Pepe with Pancetta, Basil and Zucchini
This is a glorious ziti dish I tasted in the mountains of Abruzzo. The combination of pork, zucchini, basil and cream can’t be beat. As a pizza guy who uses whole logs of charcuterie, this is another way to save money using what I call the “spent ends” of pancetta logs, prosciutto di Parma, soppressata etc. that can no longer be sliced. The secret is to slowly melt the flavor and oil out of the protein first.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.