Pasta al forno Siciliana is a classic Italian dinner recipe of baked pasta, meat sauce, and gooey cheese! It’s popular for Sunday dinners and holidays both in Italy and here in the United States. My sausage pasta bake starts with rigatoni, then I make a quick sauce of chopped tomatoes and Italian sausage, and I finish it off with smoked mozzarella cheese for the gooey factor.
Summer is heating up, but I still have love in my heart (and stomach 🙂 ) for some Italian comfort food! Specifically, pasta al forno since I can never pass by a yummy pasta bake.
Sausage Pasta Bake
This recipe is based on a restaurant dinner I had a few weeks back. We were at one of our favorite local Italian restaurants and I saw on their specials menu a sausage and chicken al forno. How could I resist?
And I’m glad I didn’t! It was soooo good I immediately had to make a similar version at home. I simplified it a bit (skipping the chicken), but kept the simple and spicy sauce, the smoked mozzarella, the Italian sausage, and the perfectly chewy pasta.
I honestly can’t get enough of the flavor combination. Especially with plenty of fresh basil on top! I’m happy to eat it for dinner, for leftovers, for dinner again, right after I took the pictures…you get the idea. 😉
How do you make it?
To make a sausage pasta bake (or sausage pasta al forno), make a quick tomato sauce with sausage and chopped tomatoes. Then parboil the rigatoni and toss everything together in a casserole dish. Bake until tender then top with smoked mozzarella cheese.
Cook the rigatoni pasta
You’ll want to get things started on the pasta first since it takes time to heat the water and then cook the pasta. I try to time it so that the sauce will be done and waiting a minute or two before the pasta is finished. That way the pasta isn’t sitting and sticking together and cooling.
Saute the sausage
Break up the sausage right into the skillet. I use a package of loose sausage meat but you can use links too. You’ll just have to squeeze out the sausage from the links.
Make the Tomato Sauce
This is a very quick and easy sauce! You are just going saute a little garlic and then simmer it together with chopped tomatoes (I like the Pomi brand) and red pepper flakes. Just before the pasta is done, take it off the heat and add the cream, parmesan, and basil. Stir to melt the cheese and now you’re ready to toss it all together.
Bake the pasta and sausage
Add back the sausage and add in the pasta and pasta water. Mix it all until everything is well distributed and then move the pasta to your casserole dish. Cover and bake for 15 minutes. This will cook through the pasta and bring all the flavors together.
Top with the smoked mozzarella
Dot the mozzarella all over the top of the casserole, cover it back up, bake for just another couple minutes. More than 2 or 3 minutes and you will run the risk of rubber band mozzarella! Just say no.
Then let the pasta rest on the counter all covered up to finish melting the cheese and bring the recipe together. After its rest, uncover, top with more basil, and serve.
Can you use other pasta shapes in a pasta bake?
Stick with short shapes and ones with some structure to them. Think tube pastas (such as penne, ziti, or campanelle) or shells. Or you could go with a twisty shape, like rotini or fusilli.
Can this be made ahead?
You can certainly cook the sausage and make the sauce ahead of time. However, this recipe is best assembled and baked fresh. That said, the casserole can rest for up to 30 minutes on the counter before you put it in the oven if you need a little wiggle room.
If you must make ahead, add another 1/2 cup of pasta water to the sauce, assemble the casserole up to the baking step, cover tightly, and refrigerate overnight. Then let the casserole warm up for 1 hour before. Also, note the baking time will be longer since the middle will still be cold when you put it in the oven.
What do you serve with a sausage pasta bake?
If you try my recipe for Sausage Pasta Bake, I would love to hear from you in the comments with your experience and rating! And I’m happy to answer any questions you might have.
– Happy Baking, Annemarie
Italian Sausage Pasta Bake (Pasta al Forno Siciliana)
- 16 oz rigatoni pasta, or similar
- 16 oz sweet Italian sausage
- 4 medium cloves garlic, minced
- 3 cups diced tomatoes
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes, or more to taste
- 1/3 cup heavy cream
- 3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- 1/3 cup thinly sliced fresh basil
- kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
- 8 oz smoked mozzarella, rind removed, diced into 1/2 inch pieces
- 2-3 tbsp thinly sliced fresh basil
- Heat oven to 350F.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta for 3 minutes less than the package directions.
- Scoop out 1 1/2 cups of pasta water and drain the pasta.
- While the water is heating and the pasta is cooking, make the sauce.
- Put a large skillet on medium high heat, add the sausage, breaking it up as you add to the skillet. Saute the sausage until cooked through and browned. Transfer the sausage to a bowl.
- Reduce the heat to low. Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds.
- Add the tomatoes and red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes.
- Take the sauce off the heat. Stir in the heavy cream, parmesan cheese, and basil. Taste the sauce and add salt, pepper, and/or red pepper flakes as needed.
- Now add back in the sausage along with the parboiled pasta and 1 cup of the pasta water. Stir to combine. Add more pasta water if the pasta seems dry.
- Transfer the pasta mixture to a casserole dish. (13x9 or similar)
- Cover the dish with foil and bake for 15 minutes.
- Take the pasta out of the oven. Top with the mozzarella cheese. Cover the dish and put it back in the oven for 2 minutes. (Just enough to start softening the cheese.)
- Then take the pasta out and let it sit for 10 minutes covered to fully melt the cheese.
- Uncover, top with more the basil, and serve.
- Smoked Mozzarella: You want to remove the rind since it doesn't melt the same way as the middle. It's not strictly necessary but you won't have the gooey factor if you don't.
- Melting the Cheese: Fresh mozzarella very fussy about being heated. Too much and you'll get chewy rubber bands. Not fun. In other words, don't be tempted to keep the cheese topped pasta in the oven for more than the two minutes. That plus the resting time (which is good for the pasta too!) is plenty to melt diced mozzarella.
- Parmesan Cheese: Don't skip this! I did once and wondered why my pasta tasted flat. Also, freshly grated is key. Pregrated often has additives to keep it separate, and even when it doesn't, simply doesn't melt into the sauce like fresh.
- Chopped Tomatoes: I love the boxed chopped tomatoes which are simply tomatoes with no additives or salt and generally use them. (I use Pomi Brand). You will likely need salt in the sauce if you use these and you will find that the sauce is a little smoother since the tomatoes will break down. Canned chopped tomatoes with calcium chloride also work just fine in the recipe, but note that your tomatoes will hold their shape more and you may need very little or no salt.