What is al forno?
In Italy, al forno – literally ‘ to the oven’ – refers to any dish that’s baked, whether that’s a wood-fired pizza, an oven-fresh focaccia or a bubbling dish of aubergine parmigiana. Vegetables, meat, bread and fish can all be cooked al forno, but many of Italy’s most famous al forno dishes fall under the umbrella of pasta al forno, or oven-baked pasta.
Here in the UK, baked pasta is often maligned as simple student fodder (tuna pasta bake, anyone?), but pasta al forno has been a part of Italy’s rich culinary tradition for generations.
A southern Italian tradition
Pasta al forno is particularly popular in the south of Italy, where wood-fired ovens and open fire cooking are woven into the fabric of the area’s regional cuisines. Campania has cannelloni, while in Sicily timballo, a visually-arresting dome of baked pasta usually made with ring-shaped anelli, reigns supreme.
Across Southern Italy, pasta al forno is the traditional dish of choice for big gatherings, whether that’s a special celebration or just a Sunday lunch with the family. Most baked pasta dishes can be prepared in advance, so they’re the ideal way to feed a crowd.
Our favourite pasta al forno recipes
From comfort classics like lasagne (and its many regional variations) to family favourites like rigatoni al forno, baked pasta can be authentic, satisfying and truly delicious. Here’s five pasta al forno recipes that’ll make you forget that dry pasta bake was ever a thing.
Most of us have encountered a traditional lasagne alla bolognese before, typically made with beef mince ragú. For our signature lasagne recipe, we haven’t tried to reinvent the wheel, but we have elevated one of Emilia-Romagna's most famous dishes. In place of mince, we slow-cook beef shin in Barolo wine until meltingly tender, layering it with freshly made pasta sheets, velvety homemade béchamel sauce and the ‘King of Cheeses’ – Parmigiano Reggiano – before baking it to golden, crisp-edged perfection.
A specialty of the Campania region, and particularly well-loved in buzzing Naples, ziti are long dried pasta tubes that are traditionally broken into shorter pieces just before they’re cooked. Ziti al forno is the quintessentially Neapolitan preparation for this pasta shape, with the broken tubes baked in a rich tomato sauce strewn with a trio of cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan) and topped with fresh basil. A simple recipe, but an undisputed crowd-pleaser. Just ask the Neapolitans – baked ziti is their dish of choice for family feasts, holidays and celebrations.
The big brother to conchiglie, giant shells of conchiglioni are crying out to be stuffed with a flavoursome filling. In this centrepiece-worthy recipe we look to Tuscany for inspiration, where abundant fields of spinach make spinach and ricotta a favourite filling for pasta ripiena (filled pasta) like ravioli. Once stuffed, the filled shells are sat atop a bed of tomato sauce, then baked until burnished and bubbling. Pretty to look at, even better to eat.
Another dish from Campania, but this time we’re swapping the city for the coast. Picture-perfect Sorrento attracts travellers from all over the world, but we love it best for gnocchi alla Sorrentina (gnocchi in the Sorrento-style). Light, fluffy gnocchi are paired with three of the region’s most famed ingredients – buffalo mozzarella, ripe tomatoes and verdant green basil – before being baked until all of the ingredients meld into a satisfying whole. Deceptively light and fresh, this is an al forno dish that suits the summer months just as much as the colder ones.
Sticking with Sorrento (we told you that pasta al forno was popular in southern Italy), we switch our focus to cannelloni – which first cropped up in the coastal town in the early 20th century. Made from fresh lasagne sheets that have been stuffed with a vegetarian-friendly fried aubergine filling, this dish is an ode to the stunning produce that first grows in Campania’s fields, before finding its way to the region’s mercati (street markets).