My Citizens, today is truly a day torn straight from the pages of the 9th Circle of Hell’s own newspaper! My beloved city of San Francisco is quite literally covered in a dark-orange sky, and even at noon it looks like late evening thanks to all the smoke from the fires surrounding us in every direction!
My beloved North Beach neighborhood, normally vibrant with bustling Italian-American city life, is now quiet as the grave and ash rains down from the sky like the Devil’s own snowfall.
It is – in a word – apocalyptic.
As such, my mind has turned to the ultimate comfort foods of my youth as I strive to stay positive amidst plague, maskless idiocy by my neighbors and now fires closing in every hour.
It’s enough to make me turn to my ultimate weapon against depression – I speak of nothing less than the unmitigated joy that is baked ziti! I first learned how to make this from the nonnas (grandmothers) of my Italian-American high school buddies. I have, of course, now gone the extra mile and created what is unquestionably the finest version of this classic dish for the enjoyment of all TFD Nation!
Baked ziti, is – of course – a popular casserole made from ziti pasta and a Neapolitan-style tomato-based sauce characteristic of Italian-American cuisine. It is a form of pasta al forno.
Typically, the ziti are first boiled separately while a tomato sauce is prepared, which may include cheese, ground meat, sausage, mushrooms, peppers, onions, and more. The cooked and drained ziti are then combined with the sauce, which may be layered with additional varieties of cheeses, baked in the oven, and served hot.
Baked ziti, or “ziti al forno” has an interesting history, despite being a relatively recent dish here in America. From as early as the Renaissance, the ancestor of baked ziti was served to nobles at ceremonies and celebrations alike and it remains a popular food for southern Italian wedding receptions, even today. In fact, the word “ziti” comes from the word “zite”, which means “fiancee”!
Eventually this caught on throughout Italy and was adopted all over the peninsula. However, today it remains a staple dish for many southern Italian towns – Sicily and Campania (Campania includes Naples, Amalfi and Salerno) are the regions where this dish is still most popular in Italy proper.
Today, the dish – at least in the United States – is considered a hybrid of Italian and American cuisines, basically an Americanized variety of a typical Italian dish, pasta al forno, which is commonly compared to baked ziti.
The casserole is often served as a casual appetizer, cut into big slices, and it is best accompanied by a bowl of green salad. However, it can also be served as a meal on its own, making it a great comfort food for a rainy afternoon.
Interestingly, the dish was especially popularized when it appeared in an episode of the hit TV show The Sopranos as one of the favorite dishes of Tony Soprano’s wife, Carmela.
Now, especially to Italian-Americans, this dish has a holy status – messing with the classic recipe is grounds for immediate introduction to the nearest Mafioso armed with the tools of his profession. That said, I haven’t so much MESSED with the recipe as elevated it to its ultimate form – and my Italian-American buddies heartily agree (thank God!).
Now, the first order of business is your choice of pasta – ziti is of course the logical choice for the dish, but I find the ziti tubes are too slippery and don’t hold the sauce and cheese properly.
As such, I personally use rigatoni in place of ziti tubes, as they are the same size and shape but include ridges that address my concerns and hold on to every morsel of my delectable sauce! Feel free to use ziti if you so prefer. One important trick I have gratefully cribbed from Serious Eats is to barely cook the ziti before baking it, to keep the pasta toothsome.
My tomato sauce is both epic and the stuff of LEGEND – it is truly that good! I prefer a hearty, meaty and well-spiced sauce that is perfectly balanced between umami and every other flavor and you will find yourself putting my unmatched tomato sauce on anything you can, trust me!
It does include a few special ingredients to help balance out the flavors, including both fond de poulet (reduced chicken stock) and veal demiglace, both of which can be easily purchased at the links. To add a goodly flavor of vegetables, I add in some Bulgarian ajvar paste, made from eggplants and peppers.
I greatly prefer a strong flavor of sweet Italian sausage in my baked ziti, and I also dose the sauce with a bit of extra freshly-ground fennel seed as well. To avoid a watery sauce, it is imperative you use not regular mozzarella, but low moisture whole-milk mozzarella cheese.
It’s the same one used on pizza and it will prevent the sauce from becoming too thin. Add in some fresh herbs, spices and sweet marsala wine and you have a sauce truly worthy of the noble Italians who first created the dish!
I would recommend enjoying this creamy and delectable classic with a fruity red wine and some excellent garlic bread – my own recipe of course! In the meantime, pray for my city, my state and our plague-riddled country – all are in dire need of it!
Battle on – the Generalissimo
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