There's so much to love about the classic Italian-American combination of pasta and meatballs — the simplicity, the ease of customization, and the absolutely delicious way it perfumes your house with cozy smells. This time around, double down on everything you love about this combo in the form of a baked casserole to serve the hungriest of crowds. To keep things interesting we're introducing a smoky element with the addition of fire-roasted tomatoes and smoked mozzarella cheese.
A New Take on Pasta and Meatballs
A pasta bake is by far the easiest way to serve up carbs to a crowd. Plus, no one is going to complain about those crispy, crunchy bits of pasta you get around the edges of the casserole. This one relies on frozen meatballs to make it extra hearty and extra simple to assemble. But the real intrigue here is the smoky factor, achieved by both fire-roasted tomatoes and plenty of smoked mozzarella. Nutty fontina cheese joins the crowd to both balance and complement the smoky flavor, and a few big handfuls of baby spinach wilt right in to add that splash of green that makes this pasta bake wholesome.
Smoky Mozzarella Pasta and Meatball Bake
1 pound dried penne pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for coating the baking dish
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 (28-ounce) can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper
5 ounces baby spinach
2 (16-ounce) bags frozen meatballs, thawed
8 ounces smoked mozzarella cheese, grated (about 2 cups), divided
4 ounces fontina cheese, grated (about 1 cup), divided
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 400°F. Lightly coat a 3-quart casserole dish or a 9x13-inch baking dish with olive oil; set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook pasta for 8 minutes, or 2 minutes less than suggested on package instructions, until it's quite al dente, as it will keep cooking when baked. Drain and set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan (large enough to fit the cooked pasta) over medium heat until shimmering. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and their juices and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Taste and season as needed with salt and pepper. Add the spinach and cook until just wilted, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the meatballs and cooked pasta.
Pour half of the pasta mixture in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with half of each mozzarella and fontina. Then pour the remaining pasta mixture in the pan and sprinkle with the remaining cheeses.
Bake until the top is lightly golden-brown and the cheese is bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool for about 10 minutes before serving.
Make ahead: This dish can be assembled and refrigerated, covered in aluminum foil, up to 2 days in advance. Bake covered for 15 minutes, then uncover and bake for 20 minutes more.
Two smaller casseroles: This can be prepared in 2 (8x8-inch) baking dishes instead, if you want to freeze half for a future meal.
Freezing: The unbaked casserole can be frozen right in the baking dish for up to 2 months. Let it cool completely and wrap it tightly with a layer of plastic wrap, then aluminum foil. Bake straight from the freezer covered with foil for 1 hour, then uncover and bake for 15 minutes more.
Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.