This baked ziti—or penne, or rigatoni, or whatever shape you like—is extra in every single way. There’s sausage and there’s bacon. There’s mozzarella and there’s Parmesan. There’s tomato sauce so delicious, you might be tempted to eat it on its own. Heck, there’s even crème fraîche.
But the true beauty of our best-ever baked ziti is in its layering. We took the usual construction (sauce, noodles, cheese—then repeat) and mixed it up, for two reasons. One: because beginning with a bottom layer of creamy, melty mozzarella and ricotta and crème fraîche beneath the pasta provides lots of insurance against dryness, which is as bad as baked ziti gets. And two: because the way ours works, you have two distinct cheese moats, and it’s very fun to say “cheese moat.” There’s one on the bottom, and one between the two pasta layers, and you’re encouraged to mention both to your guests as many times as seems socially appropriate.
Now, for a very official word on noodles. If you’re a purist, by all means use regular old ziti here. The recipe itself calls for ziti rigati, which is ribbed, and we think all the better for sauce-clinging. But you could also call in rigatoni (our favorite), or calamarata, or penne, or even fusilli. Just don’t forget to pull out a few noodles around the edges, for baking, because nobody ever said “no” to extra crispy bits. —Ella Quittner
- 2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 8 ounces thick-cut bacon, sliced into pieces roughly 1/2-inch wide
- 1 pound (about 4 to 6) sweet Italian sausage, casings removed (you can substitute half for spicy Italian sausage)
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for salting water, and more to taste
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 pound ziti rigati (see Author Note)
- 1 1/4 cups whole-milk ricotta
- 1 cup crème fraîche
- 2 cups (about 7 ounces) finely grated Parmesan or Grana Padano, divided
- 1 1/2 pounds fresh mozzarella, shredded or roughly cut into 1/2-inch cubes, and patted dry with a clean dish towel