Hands down the best baked rigatoni recipe I've tried! Layers of tender pasta, a perfectly seasoned thick meat sauce, and a little melty mozzarella. I sneak in a couple of veggies, which are totally optional but take this dish to a new level of delicious!
Baked rigatoni with a little twist!
A perfect rigatoni pasta bake is made of tender noodles, a perfectly seasoned meat, and for me, a thin layer of melty mozzarella.
If you stop at that, you are just fine. But with the addition of a few slices of roasted eggplant and tomatoes on top, this baked rigatoni with meat sauce and veggies is the ultimate one-pan dinner. It is far easier to assemble than lasagna, but just as satisfying!
Into meal-prep? You can absolutely prepare this pasta bake a day in advance and pop it in the oven when you're ready! (more on this below)
Rigatoni are short and wide tubes of pasta with ridges on the outside. I love using rigatoni for a hearty pasta bake like today's recipe; they're satisfying and can hold up well in a baked pasta dish – no mushy or overcooked pasta here. Plus, the ridges on the outside of the rigatoni tubes help the them to grip the chunky sauces, and the large insides allow a good amount of sauce to penetrate inside the tubes.
What’s the difference between rigatoni and penne?
If you're thinking what other pasta can be used in this baked rigatoni dish? The closest answer is penne.
But while penne and rigatoni have similarities, they are also quite different. Penne is a short pasta that is cut on a diagonal and is smooth on the outside. It is a tube-like shape, but the tube is narrow.
Rigatoni is larger than penne pasta, has a distinctive large tubular shape, and little ridges all around the outside of the pasta. So, like I said earlier, rigatoni is one of the best kinds of pasta for allowing the sauce to collect inside the tube and hold onto even more sauce with the outer ridges.
What makes this rigatoni recipe extra special is the meat pasta sauce! A thick and perfectly-seasoned tomato sauce with lean ground beef, onions, garlic and a trio of spices: paprika, nutmeg, and rosemary. You can make the sauce a night or two in advance, which is a great way to save time but also allow the flavors to meld!
Ingredients for baked rigatoni
All the ingredients in this baked rigatoni are layered, but in a no-fuss, rustic way. Here are is what you'll need to make it:
- For the meat sauce: one pound lean ground beef, onions, garlic, paprika, nutmeg, and rosemary. Crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce. You can use ground turkey or Italian sausage, if you prefer.
- For the pasta: One pound of rigatoni, cooked to just al dante or even slightly before, this way it doesn't get overcooked in the oven.
- Cheese: about 6 to 8 ounces of fresh mozzarella. I like just a thin layer on top that will bubble and melt nicely for comfort and flavor. You can add more cheese to your liking.
- For the Vegetables (optional): one large eggplant, sliced and broiled, and one large tomato are added as layers to finish this dish. This is totally optional, but really completes this pasta bake.
- Fresh basil leaves for garnish! This a pop of bright green and fresh herby flavor that is the perfect way to finish this dish.
How to make baked rigatoni
(print-friendly recipe with ingredient list below)
Making this baked rigatoni with beef takes a few simple layers. You will essentially make the sauce and cook the pasta to al dante. Then you can assemble the pasta, sauce, cheese (and vegetables, optional) in your casserole dish to bake. Here is how:
- Make the pasta sauce. Here, you'll simply saute onions and garlic in a bit of good extra virgin olive oil. Add your ground beef, and make sure you break it up well. Cook until the beef is fully browned. Season with salt and pepper and spices. Add the canned tomatoes and allow the sauce to simmer for a good 15 to 20 minutes
- Cook the pasta. Get your rigatoni noodles (or penne or ziti) in a large pot of boiling salted water and cook to al dante or even a little bit before, this way, the pasta will still hold its nice shape after baking.
- Broil eggplant slices (if using). This is totally optional, but if you are adding the eggplant, once you salt it and allow it to sweat a bit, then you'll simply brush it with olive oil and stick it under the broiler briefly until it is tender.
- Assemble the pasta casserole. Grab a large baking dish and begin layering! Put some of the pasta sauce in the dish first, add about half of the pasta, eggplant (if using), more sauce, then add the layer of mozzarella and fresh tomato slices if using.
- Bake at 375 degrees F for 20 to 30 minutes. Since everything is cooked, your pasta bake won't take very long, but your goal is to get the cheese melting nicely on top. I like the pasta tubes to even char a bit and the cheese to bubble nicely, so I use the broil function very briefly to achieve this.
Prepare ahead instructions for baked rigatoni
Yes! You can prepare this pasta bake in advance and layer everything in your baking dish, then simply cover and refrigerate until the next day when you are ready to bake. Or, I prefer preparing the sauce in advance but I like to cook the pasta just before assembling everything together. If you are using eggplant, you can prepare and broil the eggplant slices ahead of time as well.
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Baked Rigatoni with Meat Sauce and Vegetable
- 1 eggplant, about 1lb, thinly sliced
- 1 lb Rigatoni pasta, or penne pasta
- Kosher salt
- Extra virgin olive oil, my go-to olive oils
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 lb lean ground beef, or ground turkey or Italian sausage
- 1 teaspoon Spanish paprika
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon dried Rosemary
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 26 oz canned or boxed crushed tomatoes
- 15 oz tomato sauce
- 1 large tomato, sliced into rounds
- 6 to 8 oz fresh mozzarella, more to your liking
- Handful fresh basil leaves
- Prepare the Eggplant. Place eggplant slices on a large tray. Sprinkle generously with salt and set aside for 20 minutes or so (the eggplant will sweat out any bitterness). Using a paper towel, pat the eggplant dry and wipe any excess salt.
- Broil the Eggplant. Spray or brush the eggplant generously with extra virgin olive oil. Place on top rack of heated oven to broil for 4-5 minutes or so, watching very carefully. The eggplant should "wilt" and brown. Remove from heat and set aside. (you will need to switch oven to bake later)
- Cook the pasta. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, season well with kosher salt. Cook the pasta to al l dante according to package instructions. This might take about 11 minutes or so. When ready, drain, reserving a little bit of the pasta cooking water.
- Prepare meat sauce. While the pasta is cooking, heat 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil in a large deeper pan. Cook the onions over medium-high heat until translucent, about 3 minutes, tossing regularly. Add the garlic and cook for another minute, again tossing regularly. Add the meat and spices, and season with Kosher salt and black pepper. Using a wooden spoon, break the meat up into smaller piece, continue to stir until the meat is fully cooked through and has browned (about 7 to 10 minutes). Add the canned crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce. Bring to a boil, then lower to simmer for 15 minutes or so. Carefully taste and adjust salt, if needed add more salt.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and position a rack in the middle.
- Assemble the rigatoni casserole. Spoon a little bit of the meat sauce to cover the bottom of a large 14 x 10 x 3 deep baking dish, Add about ½ of the pasta. Assemble the broiled eggplant on top, then add half the meat sauce. Now add the remaining pasta and top with the remaining meat sauce. Finally, assemble fresh tomatoes and mozzarella slices on the very top.
- Bake! Place the rigatoni dish on the middle rack of your heated oven. Bake for 20 to 25. If needed, put the rigatoni under the broiler briefly. Watch carefully until top of the rigatoni casserole gains some good color (you're looking for some of the pasta to crisp up; the tomato and mozzarella may char or brown in some spots).
- Prepare ahead instructions. You can assemble the rigatoni up to step #8 a night or two in advance. Cover tightly and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before baking, step #9.
- Freezing instructions: You can fully prepare and bake this casserole. Let cool completely, then cover tightly and freeze. Best to use a freezer-to-oven safe casserole dish so that you can bake it directly from frozen. Otherwise, let it thaw out for a couple of hours before baking.
- Visit our Online Shop to browse quality Mediterranean ingredients including olive oils and spices used in this recipe.
* This post first appeared on The Mediterranean Dish in 2017 and has been updated with new information and media for readers' benefit. Enjoy!