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Pasta al Forno con le Polpettine

August 25, 2010

We all get cravings.

But it seems that pop culture, the media, and women’s magazines have conspired to turn our natural desires into a big pile of cliché. For example, we all know who craves chocolate and when, that pregnant women want ice cream (in bed), and that, for certain seasonal inhabitants of the Jersey Shore, only pickles will do. Cravings are usually seen as a symptom and always seen as a weakness. A quick google search for “food cravings” results in sites mostly geared towards women. On diets.

And the majority of these sites offer ways to curb or ignore cravings. One even instructs you how to substitute what you’re actually craving (sweets, alcohol and soda) with “healthy” alternatives (liver, granola and mustard greens, respectively). No, thanks!

Sure, some cravings can be harmful. Some, disgusting.

But when did eating what we want and listening to our bodies become dangerous? Where did we lose the way?

In my case, it was when I first heard about this:

Though until last night, I’d never eaten pasta al forno con le polpettine, otherwise known as baked pasta with little meatballs, a traditional dish from southern Italy, I really, really wanted to.

I had heard anecdotes about how delicious, and dangerous, it could be.

According to family lore (often repeated on long car trips to Puglia), in the early 1970s, Francesco’s dad and mum stopped by relatives during a trip in southern Italy. It was summer, and it was hot. Obliged to stay for a meal of pasta al forno con le polpettine, in a small kitchen with a blazing oven, Francesco’s dad saw his life flash melt before his eyes.

But, despite just barely escaping with his dignity, he never fails to mention how good that pasta was. How melty-cheesed and crunchy-topped and exisquitely-meatballed it was.

An anecdote was all I needed.

In going about planning for this dish, I identified two problems right away: 1) my meatballs are usually tough and vaguely reminiscent of cardboard and 2) it’s nearly impossible not to overcook the pasta in a baked pasta dish.

Taking care of problem number one turned out to be much easier than I’d thought. Turns out, I was just doing it wrong! As my Italian cookbooks were either void of this regional wonder or distressingly vague, I scoured the internet for a suitable meatball recipe and eventually settled on the meatballs of the venerable Smitten Kitchen, based on this recipe. My version is, in turn, a wild approximation of hers, but it worked out perfectly. Tiny little balls of heaven:

To remedy problem number two, the issue of overcooked (scotta in Italian) pasta, I just half-cooked the maccheroni (I cooked them for 5 out of the 9 minute cooking time, and next time will decrease it to 4). Though I was worried they’d still be crunchy after baking, they had soaked up the tomato sauce brilliantly and were just right.

I layered the parboiled pasta with a quick tomato sauce, tons of grated cheese (I used a mixture of pecorino, parmigiano, mozzarella and ricotta, ie. what I had in the fridge), meatballs, and basil. Then I did it again, and baked the whole thing for 40 minutes. The results?

Worth a near-death experience any day. Craving: satisfied.

in the midst of the layering process...

printable recipe


This makes enough for 2 large casserole dishes and feeds 10-12 people. It can be made a few days ahead (it may even be better reheated the next day), and can be frozen. From start to finish, it took me about 2 hours to make and fry the meatballs, make the sauce, boil the pasta, grate the cheese, pop it in the oven and wait for the timer to go off as I cleaned up. Not too much to ask for such a classic, Sunday dinner kind of dish.

Also, you can substitute the tomato sauce with a more substantial ragù or add sausage. You can play around with which types of cheese you use, though you should use some melty cheese like mozzarella or, ideally, scamorza.

tiny meatballs (see below)

tomato sauce (see below)

1 1/2 lb (1.5 boxes) short pasta (such as rigatoni or penne rigate), half-cooked (don’t be scared! Just drain them after half the time on the package)

1 cup grated parmigiano or pecorino or a mixture

2 cups grated mozzarella or scamorza or “pizza cheese” (shhh!)

1 cup ricotta (optional)

a handful fresh basil leaves (optional)

1 cup frozen peas (optional)

nutmeg (optional)


Preheat oven to 400°F/200°C. Take two large casserole dishes and spoon a bit of the tomato sauce on the bottom of each. Spoon some drained pasta to cover, then spoon some sauce, then the meatballs, then a mixture of the cheeses, then the basil and peas (if using). Repeat until the casseroles are full. Don’t be too skimpy with the sauce, as the pasta will soak it up, but remember that this isn’t supposed to be a saucy pasta. Top with abundant mozzarella and some grated nutmeg if you desire. Cover with tin foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove tin foil and brown for 10 minutes more. This can be made a few days ahead and reheated to serve.

ready for the oven

TINY MEATBALLS (I used a bit more than 2 lbs of meat and have about 15 leftover meatballs, which are SO good on their own):

1/2 lb (1/4 kg) ground pork

1/2 lb (1/4 kg) ground beef

1 lb (1/2 kg) ground veal

1/2 cup good-quality bread crumbs

1 egg

a big handful of parsley leaves, chopped

1/3 cup parmigiano cheese, finely grated

salt and pepper (and nutmeg, optional)

flour for dredging


In a large bowl, use your hands to gently mix the meat with the egg, parsley, bread crumbs, cheese, seasonings, and about 1/2 cup water. Combine until it’s relatively uniform. Use your hands to roll the mixture into little meat balls about the size of a marble. It should make what seems like 49,283, but turns out to be about 2 baking trays worth.

Place a bit of flour in a medium bowl and put in 10 or so meatballs at a time, tossing to just coat with flour. Repeat until all the meatballs are lightly coated (as pictured).

Place a bit of vegetable or canola oil to thoroughly coat the bottom of a large wide-bottomed pan, and fry the meatballs in batches over medium to medium-low heat, being careful not to overcrowd them. You want to brown them well on all sides, which should take about 5 minutes per batch, then remove them to a plate or tray covered with paper towels. Repeat until all the meatballs are fried.

Don’t wash the pan. Make the tomato sauce in the oil..

QUICK TOMATO SAUCE (this can be substituted with your favorite tomato sauce or a meat ragu.)

1 onion (optional)

3 cups tomato purée

1 small can chopped tomatoes

1 tsp garlic powder


In the same pan you use to fry the meatballs, fry the onion (if using) until golden then add the rest of the ingredients. Cook down for about 15 minutes, adding seasonings to taste. (I added basil because I had it on hand.)

Today's leftovers = happiness

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Carol permalink
    August 26, 2010 1:01 am

    Looks sooo good!! Plus, I think if you eat little tiny meatballs like that standing up, they do not even count as calories! But really, who cares when they look that delicious. This will be a definite go-to dish as cooler weather finally comes to New England. Yum!

  2. Brogan permalink
    October 31, 2011 1:48 am

    Hey, I realise that this is over a year since your post but this pasta looks sooo good and I have to ask whether there’s any way the recipe could be reduced to make enough for two? I’m aiming to cook a romantic dinner for myself and my boyfriend this weekend and I know he would love this dish! What are your recommendations?

    • October 31, 2011 11:28 am

      Hey! You could totally just divide all the ingredients’ quantities by 4 and make a mini casserole of love. If I were you, I’d make a pot of tomato sauce and maybe a half-recipe of meatballs, then use those to dress whatever amount of pasta with whatever amount of cheese you want. (The amounts are just approximations anyway.) You can always use the sauce and meatballs for pasta later in the week or freeze them for future romantic dinners; and leftovers are pretty romantic, too, if you ask me.

      • Brogan permalink
        November 1, 2011 5:20 am

        Thank you! That’s really helpful and hopefully it’ll turn out ok as I’m totally useless in the kitchen! Fingers crossed! 😛

  3. ao2it permalink
    April 21, 2012 9:29 pm

    Hi, I am from southern Italy and I have to say your dish look really “native”, good work!

    Another trick I’ve seen (we do that in our family) is to use both polpettine and regular sized polpette together, this is done in case using only the little ones makes the casserole too dry: you fry the regular polpette then cook them in the tomato sauce for a while, then you cut them in four parts when you layer the casserole, this way they are more juicy than the little ones; but you still want a part of polpettine which are chruncier and prettier 🙂

    Buon appetito,

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