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 canned, fire-roasted tomatoes.
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 using fire-roasted tomatoes. 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.
Swap the standard spaghetti for tender penne, tuck in tiny meatballs, and dress it all in a smoky tomato sauce and top it with a layer of melted and golden-brown cheese? Yes, please!
Fire-roasted tomatoes and frozen meatballs weren't always staples in my kitchen, but I have found that keeping them on hand is an easy way to upgrade dinner with zero extra effort. The first time I made this recipe, I could not get over the flavor, but I found it a little dry and meatball-heavy. Using two cans of fire roasted tomatoes and just a single bag of frozen meatballs brings the balance back. Smoked mozzarella was on the original ingredient list, but my grocer does not always carry it, and when it does it is often expensive for a weeknight dinner. I find that I actually prefer classic part-skim mozzarella, so the smoky tomato sauce stands out.
For my family of four (two bigs and two littles), I split this casserole between two 8x8-inch pans, baking one for supper and sending the other to the deep freeze.
-Patty, May 2018
Smoky Mozzarella Pasta and Meatball Bake
Serves 8 to 10
olive oil, plus more for coating the baking dish
cloves garlic, minced
red pepper flakes
(28-ounce) cans diced fire-roasted tomatoes
freshly ground black pepper
(16-ounce) bag frozen meatballs, thawed
(8 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese, divided
(4 ounces) shredded fontina cheese, 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. Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water, then drain and set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a large pasta pot over medium heat until shimmering. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Increase heat to medium-high, add the tomatoes and their juices, salt, pepper, and 1/2 cup reserved pasta water. Stir to combine, then add the spinach and cook until just wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the meatballs and drained pasta.
Pour half of the pasta mixture in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the mozzarella and half of the fontina cheese. Top with the remaining pasta mixture and sprinkle with the remaining cheeses. Bake until the top is lightly golden and the cheese is bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool for about 10 minutes before serving.
Storage: Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
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 aluminum foil. Bake straight from the freezer covered with foil for 1 hour, then uncover and bake for 15 minutes more.