Luscious Baked Pasta Gratin

Preparation info

  • Makes


    Main-Course Servings
    • Difficulty


Appears in

Get in There and Cook: A Master Class for the Starter Chef

Get in There and Cook

By Richard Sax

Published 1997

  • About

Baked pasta dishes are among my favorites. In the old days (Before Cholesterol), I used to moisten pasta and vegetables with tomato sauce combined with heavy cream. Yum. This gives similar results with much less fat. This is very loosely based on a recipe called “Bully’s Pasta” from my friend, cookbook author Anna Teresa Callen.


  • Salt, to taste
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, or as needed
  • 8 fresh or wild mushrooms, cleaned, halved, and thickly sliced (Mushroom Basics)
  • freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 cellery halved through the root end and sliced crosswise
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 can (16 ounces) whole tomatoes in thick puree
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves, or a pinch of mixed dried herbs, such as basil, oregano, and/or thyme
  • Pinch of dried red pepper flakes
  • cup frozen peas
  • ½ pound dried rigatoni or rotelle (wheels)
  • cup ¼-inch diced Italian fontina cheese
  • ¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces)
  • tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into bits


    1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Butter a 2-quart gratin dish or shallow baking dish and set aside. Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. Add a little salt.
    2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a nonreactive skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms; sprinkle with salt and pepper and let sit for 1 to 2 minutes, until they sizzle and begin to release their liquid. Sauté, tossing with a wooden spoon, until lightly golden, 4 or 5 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a plate and set aside.
    3. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the skillet. Add the onions, 1 tablespoon water, and a sprinkling of salt. Cover the pan and sweat or cook for 3 minutes. Uncover the pan; continue to sauté until the onions are soft but not limp, 2 to 3 minutes longer. Add the garlic; cook until the garlic is lightly golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, basil, pepper flakes, and a few grinds of black pepper. Bring to a boil, breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Reduce the heat and simmer until lightly thickened but still liquid, about 15 minutes. Then stir in the reserved mushrooms and the peas.
    4. Meanwhile, add the pasta to the boiling water; boil until al dente, firm but tender. Drain and rinse quickly under cold water.
    5. Now layer the ingredients in the gratin dish as follows: Drizzle a little of the tomato sauce into the baking dish. Add about one-third of the pasta and then half of the remaining sauce. Sprinkle on half of the fontina and a little of the Parmesan. Repeat as follows: half of the remaining pasta, half of the remaining sauce, all of the remaining fontina, and a sprinkling of the Parmesan. Top with the remaining pasta and then with the remaining sauce. Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan generously over the top. Dot with the butter.
    6. Bake until the pasta mixture is bubbly and the top is crusty, 25 to 30 minutes. If you’d like to brown the surface further (I usually do), turn on the broiler and position a rack about 6 inches from the heat. Run the baking dish under the hot broiler until the topping is golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes (watch carefully to prevent burning). Let the pasta stand for a few minutes before serving hot.