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They looked at me the way a person would if I'd told them that The Godfather III was my favorite of the trilogy. Then Niki forwarded me an excerpt from some old notes she had taken while researching a story on restaurants in Little Italy. Here's a key snippet: the. worst. italian. food. i've. ever. eaten.
That didn't entirely surprise me, since it's been a sad fact for a long time that New York's Little Italy is, with very few exceptions, an embarrassment to its once thriving Italian-American culinary tradition. Of those exceptions, including Rubirosa and one or two others, I couldn't find ziti on their menus. I ordered some ziti from Parm, which I'll get back to in a moment, and continued with my recipe testing.
The funny thing is, as familiar a dish as baked ziti is, I had some initial trouble trying to define it. Some versions include meat, others just tomato sauce. Most, but not all, have three kinds of cheese: mozzarella, ricotta, and Parmesan. The pasta, as the name indicates, is ziti, a tubular shape that comes in both smooth and ridged versions. A few recipes substitute other tube-shaped pastas, like penne or even rigatoni. Herbs vary.
Eventually I settled on a basic meatless formula: ziti, tomato sauce, mozzarella, ricotta, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. But even that soon proved problematic.
To Ricotta or Not-a (Say That With Proper Italian Pronunciation and it Won't Work)
One of the reasons I had wanted to find some examples of good baked ziti was because I was having a bit of an existential ricotta crisis. Basically, I was toying with the idea of dropping it from my ziti recipe entirely, but I wasn't sure if I would be breaking some sacred baked-ziti rule by doing that.
You may be wondering why I would want to drop ricotta cheese from my ziti. It's a valid question, and I think the most direct answer is that I'm the worst sort of ricotta snob. I worked for a short period several years ago as a shepherd in central Italy, and the sheep milk ricotta that we made stands to this day as the best ricotta I have ever eaten in my life. It was so good, in fact, that I've resigned myself to the very real possibility that I may never taste such good ricotta again.
What this means is that the ricotta that many people rave about as "the best" tastes merely "very good" to me (see? I warned you I was a snob about this). If you're lucky enough to have a great Italian dairy nearby (we happen to have one of the best right across the street from us), then you may be in luck when it comes to finding decent ricotta. But for the rest of us, all of the "ricotta" cheese sold at the supermarket—and I'm talking about the mass-produced stuff packed with gums and stabilizers—is unacceptable to me. I can't stand it. It's flavorless, it's grainy, it's all wrong, and as far as I'm concerned, it ruins any dish it touches.
Which brings me back to baked ziti. Most recipes include ricotta, but when I talked with Kenji about ways to tackle this recipe, he thought—and I agreed with him—that any recipe I come up with shouldn't have to hinge on high-quality fresh ricotta, since that isn't available to all of our readers. I also didn't want people to have to make their own just to incorporate it in another dish.
That left me at an impasse. My attempts with mass-market ricotta had all been failures in my eyes. It didn't matter if I blended it into the tomato sauce, whipped it with cream, or smoothed it with mascarpone, it just tasted bad and the texture was worse. It was a concession I wasn't willing to make, which is why I started wondering if the ricotta needed to be there at all.
I found one or two recipes online without it, which was an encouraging start. Kenji pointed me to the Cooks Illustrated recipe, which uses cottage cheese instead. I polled my colleagues, asked Ed for his expert opinion, and even solicited the advice of the New York Times dining critic Pete Wells, who told me he grew up on ricotta-free Midwest versions that, like Cooks Illustrated, subbed in cottage cheese.*
* I tested cottage cheese out in one round of baked ziti tests, and really disliked the way the curds refused to melt, remaining as distinct little lumps throughout the dish.
When the baked ziti delivery from Parm arrived at the office, it clinched it for me. Their ziti, a sculpture of perfectly aligned noodles, didn't appear to have much if any ricotta baked into it. Instead, they had spooned a fresh ricotta cream on top of the pasta after it had been baked. I wasn't going to follow their lead with a ricotta cream, because it would still be nasty if made with the supermarket stuff, but it gave me the confidence to unleash a similar idea that I had been considering: Parmesan Cream.
My Baked Ziti's Secret Sauce
Even before tasting the baked ziti from Parm, I had been dreaming of spooning a thick cream sauce all over my baked ziti, but I had been worried it was too much of a divergence from the classic dish. Once I committed to the idea, everything began to make sense, and every problem with baked ziti I've ever had went away.
First, it's incredibly easy to make, involving nothing more than reducing some cream and then whisking in a lot of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Second, it solved the gritty texture of ziti made with ricrappa. The thing that ricotta adds to a baked ziti is creaminess, but unless it's a great ricotta, that creaminess comes at too high of a texture cost. But Parmesan cream sauce adds an insane amount of creaminess that's perfectly smooth. If bad ricotta is the hair-shirt of baked ziti, my Parmesan cream is satin negligee.
Third, it delivers great Parmesan flavor while solving a dryness issue I usually have with plain grated Parm in a dish like this: The grated cheese adds flavor without adding moisture or texture. Why not re-write the script and shake up the cast? It should have happened with Godfather III; it will happen with baked ziti.
I tried the parm cream two ways, both baked into the ziti, and also spooned on top at the end. By far, the best way was spooning it on top at the end. Baked into the dish it gets lost, but spooned on top...oh man, watch out. Plus, using it as a finishing sauce makes the cooking process more efficient: Instead of having to make the cream sauce as part of the overall ziti prep, you can whip it up while the pasta bakes.
What About the Mozz?
I started out my tests almost certain that I would end up calling for fresh, milky mozzarella, just as I did in my Italian-style eggplant parm. But, doing my best to be a good recipe tester, I tried out side-by-side versions with fresh mozzarella (both the supermarket kind that claims it is fresh but is sometimes weeks old and truly fresh, made-the-same day kind) and low-moisture mozzarella.
But after tasting them, I decided to do something a little precious and call for both fresh and low-moisture. I mostly don't like low-moisture mozzarella, especially when it tops something and takes on that weird semi-translucent-rubber look. But there's no denying that it melts in a really beautiful, satisfying way. I wanted that in my ziti, I just didn't want it on my ziti.
My solution was to fold cubes of low-moisture mozz into the ziti, for the best melted-cheese texture, along with some cubes of fresh mozzarella for a more real milky mozzarella flavor. Then I scatter only fresh mozzarella on top, because it looks so much better. I found that both the truly fresh and also the just-kinda-pretending-to-be-fresh mozzarella cheeses worked well for the fresh mozz here.
Some people use grated mozzarella in their ziti, but that never made much sense to me: don't we want reservoirs of gooey cheese in there? Isn't that half the fun of a melted cheese like mozzarella? Yeah, I thought so.
The Red Sauce
One thing that I did find through testing was that I preferred not to blend the sauce itself with anything creamy (whether cream itself or ricotta). Instead, I preferred the contrast of tangy sauce with creamy elements like melted cheese and cheese sauce. The whole dish has more vitality that way.
Putting It All Together
To make the ziti, I start by par-cooking the pasta in salted boiling water until about halfway cooked.* Then I toss it with sauce, the mozzarella cheeses, and some of the pasta cooking water. It needs to be a little wet here, since the pasta is still underdone and will absorb more water as it bakes.
*I tried my hand at the method Kenji used in his American Chop Suey recipe, in which the pasta is soaked first, and then finishes cooking in its sauce. For some reason mine kept coming out starchy and gummy, but I suspect I was doing something wrong (I used cold water, Kenji used warm, and it's possible my pasta soaked longer than it should have). Anyway, par-cooking the pasta is easy enough.
I scrape it all into a baking dish, and then follow another tip of Kenji's, which is to spoon a little more sauce on top. That top layer of sauce makes a good contrast, both in terms of flavor and appearance, with the fresh mozzarella that melts on top of it.
I stared the ziti out covered in a 400°F oven, to prevent the top from scorching as it bakes. Then uncover it, raise the oven temperature and continue cooking it until it's just starting to lightly brown in spots. A little bit of fresh basil on top adds some great aroma.
The ziti may look a little dry—honestly, it kind of freaked me out at first, and I was sure I was going to have to re-test it with more sauce. But then I ate it and I promise it doesn't taste dry at all.
And once the Parmesan cream sauce is drizzled on top...pretty soon you'll forget about the ricotta altogether.