6 oz fresh mozzarella, more to your liking (optional)
Handful fresh basil leaves
Prepare 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). Pat dry when ready.
Turn your oven on broil. 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)
Prepare Pasta. Cook pasta in boiling water to al dante according to package instructions. This might take about 11 minutes or so. I like to add a generous pinch of salt and about 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil to the boiling water. When ready, drain, reserving a little bit of the pasta cooking water.
Prepare meat sauce. While the pasta is cooking, heat 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil in a large deeper pan like this one . Cook the onions over medium-high heat until translucent, about 3 minutes, tossing regularly. Add garlic and cook for another minute, again tossing regularly.
Leaving the heat on medium-high, add meat and spices, salt and black pepper. Using a wooden spoon, break the meat into smaller piece, continue to stir until meat is fully cooked through and has browned. On most stoves, this will take 7 minutes or so.
Now 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 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 like this one. Add about 1/2 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 mozzerlla slices on the very top.
Place on middle rack of heated oven. Bake for 20 minutes or so. If needed, switch to broil and place rigatoni casserole back on top rack briefly. Watch carefully until top of the rigatoni casserole gains some good color (you’re looking for some of the pasta to even crisp up…the tomato and mozzarella may char or brown in some spots).