The line between "Italian" and "Italian-American" cuisine can be blurry at times—some dishes, like lasagna, inhabit both worlds, though you may find major differences in preparation between the two versions. But there's one thing that pretty much all Italian-American dishes have in common, and not all Italian ones do: They're comfort foods. They don't judge. They're not meant to be eaten in the company of anyone who would judge you, whether you've got a dribble of melted cheese dangling from your chin or a fleck of spinach stuck to your teeth, whether you're taking third helpings of manicotti over a bad breakup or crying into your pizza crust over a lost job. They're family-and-friends foods, and as such, many of these dishes—often, very specific versions of them, made by our parents or grandparents or at the fern-bedecked red-sauce joint of our youth—hold a cherished spot in our memories.
This collection of recipes represents our versions of some of those beloved Italian-American classics: baked ziti, chicken cacciatore, stuffed shells, Bolognese sauce, eggplant parmesan, and more. They're not meant to replace your mom's recipes (we wouldn't dare try to do that, and besides, why don't you call her up already and ask for those recipes if you want to make them, she'd probably love to hear from you)—but they are all pretty damn good, if we do say so ourselves, and they're guaranteed comfort.
Sauces and Pastas
Yes, it'll take a sizable portion of your day to make—but if you're looking for a homemade red sauce to ruin your loved ones, and yourself, for all others, this is the one. Start with canned tomatoes of excellent quality (preferably DOP San Marzanos), add carrot and onion whole for natural sweetness, sauté aromatics in a combination of butter and olive oil to make the sauce extra rich, and—the real secret here—cook it all in a 300°F oven instead of on the stovetop. That low-and-slow cooking allows the interior of the pot's contents to slowly concentrate while the surface browns, resulting in exceptionally rich, deep flavor. If you don't have the kitchen time that your nonna did, try this 40-minute red sauce, which takes a few shortcuts but still produces plenty of delicious flavor, or a handy pressure cooker version that uses the same ingredients but is ready in just over an hour.
One of Italian cuisine's most noteworthy and celebrated sauces, ragù bolognese is a great one to make in bulk and have on hand for a quick meal of pasta any time you want it. A little powdered gelatin adds luxurious body to the sauce, which we like best with a mixture of ground beef, pork, and veal, though beef alone will work just fine. While it's not as time-consuming as our best red sauce, this recipe will require a good three or four hours of stovetop cooking. For a more streamlined project, check out Kenji's pressure cooker Bolognese recipe, or, at the opposite extreme, make a day of it with his slow-cooked, pull-out-all-the-stops original Bolognese.
A staple dish of pizza-and-pasta joints in the northeastern US, penne alla vodka may have somewhat murky origins, but the vodka isn't a gimmick: Kenji's testing found that a small amount of the liquor adds a pleasant heat and bite that balance out the tomatoes and cream in this simple sauce. For best flavor, start with canned whole tomatoes and crush them by hand; if you want a smooth sauce, purée the mixture in a blender before adding the cream and warming it all through.
For ziti that's not overcooked, soak the noodles in hot water instead of boiling them before you construct the casserole: They'll absorb enough liquid during the soaking stage to turn them perfectly al dente in the oven. We combine the ziti with a basic marinara sauce enriched with heavy cream and flavorful ricotta, along with cubed mozzarella cheese to produce those gooey little pockets in every corner, for a main dish to make your whole crowd happy. If you're averse to grainy ricotta, as Daniel is, try his variation on baked ziti made with two mozzarellas and Parmesan; for a quicker dish made on the stovetop, check out our skillet baked ziti.
Baked pasta doesn't get more inviting than these plump pasta shells, brimming with a filling of creamy ricotta and spinach and topped off with a bright tomato sauce and (naturally) melted mozz. The key is to use the best-quality ricotta you can find, with no stabilizers or gums; our favorite nationally available brand is Calabro. Squeezing out the cooked spinach leaves and draining the ricotta thoroughly helps you avoid a watery filling.
The filling here isn't much different from the one used in our stuffed shells. (As Daniel has pointed out, so many of our favorite Italian-American dishes are just the same tasty ingredients repackaged in different forms—not that we're complaining about that.) We do improve upon typical manicotti with a couple of tweaks here: First, we use fresh pasta sheets or no-boil lasagna noodles to construct the manicotti, rather than dried manicotti shells. Second, we mix peppery arugula with the spinach for a more interesting flavor than spinach alone can provide.
This might not be a carbon copy of the fettuccine Alfredo you'll find at your nearest red-checked-tablecloth establishment. Then again, we think that's a selling point—as much as we want to love the stuff, so much fettuccine Alfredo out there is heavy and rich to the point of rendering us physically uncomfortable after a meal. The recipe here uses just a touch of cream, leaving most of the thickening work up to a single egg and a teaspoon of cornstarch, for a lighter texture and cleaner flavor. To make it as the Romans do—a simple, elegant affair of pasta, butter, and cheese—check out Daniel's recipe.
Lobster fra diavolo may sound more familiar, but shrimp prepared the same way is just as good and much more accessible for those of us cooking at home. As with most of our shrimp recipes, we brine the shrimp quickly with baking soda to keep them firm and snappy as they cook. Sautéing the shrimp shells in the oil you use for the tomato-based sauce adds extra shellfish flavor, as does a dose of bottled clam juice.
This isn't a fully authentic lasagna bolognese, but it's a blowout dinner by any measure, not to mention a damn tasty way to put your homemade ricotta to good use. A combination of lamb, veal, pork, and chicken livers—traditionally a special-occasion addition to the dish—yields the right balance of flavor, fat, and tenderness. Try Daniel's Classic Baked Lasagna Bolognese for a slightly less complex version that's no less delicious.
It may be possible to get a dish called "pasta primavera" at some restaurants all year long, but it probably won't contain much, if any, of the bright, green produce we associate with the season. Since this recipe really does, save it for springtime: It's a mixture of all our favorite spring vegetables, like asparagus, broccolini, fava beans, and English peas, combined with fresh pasta. Using crème fraîche instead of heavy cream in the sauce keeps it appropriately light.
Meat and Seafood
Chicken parmesan is one of those delightful foods that are pretty good even when they're not so good, but that's not going to stop us from making the best chicken parm we can. Here, that means soaking the chicken in a garlic-spiked buttermilk brine and breading it with a mix of Parmesan and bread crumbs for extra flavor. Ideally, it also means topping it with a great homemade red sauce, but you can certainly use your favorite store-bought variety, too. If you've got a game-watching party on the horizon, note that this recipe makes an excellent chicken parm sandwich.
This punchy Italian-American favorite comes together in under an hour and requires just a single Dutch oven or large pan. We first brown the chicken thighs and the sausage separately, then set them aside while we make a pan sauce, and finally combine it all in the same pot and stick it in the oven for half an hour—that's it. The secret ingredient in the sauce is the pickling liquid from your jar of cherry peppers, which gives it extra sweet-and-sour flavor.
This weeknight-friendly recipe tops an easy-to-love main ingredient—fried breaded chicken cutlets—with a lemony butter sauce spiked with salty capers. The result is a simple dish that effectively combines a lot of flavors and textures: briny, tangy, buttery-rich, crisp, velvety. Panko bread crumbs make the lightest, crispiest coating for the chicken.
There's nothing too fancy about chicken Marsala, which makes it another perfect choice for a quick Tuesday-night dinner. We like to lightly dredge our chicken cutlets in flour to assist with browning, thicken the pan sauce, and give the chicken itself a silkier texture. A bit of gelatin added to the Marsala wine lends a richer consistency to the sauce. Be patient with the mushrooms, letting them brown thoroughly before you deglaze the pan—otherwise, you won't get as much of their flavor.
There are so many recipes out there for chicken cacciatore ("hunter's-style" chicken) that it can really be whatever you want it to be. In the US, the dish most commonly includes tomato, peppers, and onions, and this recipe sticks with that convention. Like most of our braises, it starts with searing the meat, then setting it aside as you sauté the vegetables and deglaze with wine. Once the sauce is done, nestle the chicken back into the pot and finish it either on the stovetop or in the oven. For another twist on cacciatore that's a bit heartier and more wintry, try this version with mushrooms, too.
For meatballs that are incredibly moist and full of flavor, we rely on a surprising ingredient: buttermilk, which we use to soak fresh bread to create a panade to mix with the meat. A mix of fatty ground beef, ground pork, and pancetta adds to the flavor and juiciness. Serve these with your favorite red sauce, either on their own or in a terrific meatball sub.
Quick, easy, and delicious, shrimp scampi makes an excellent dinner with or without pasta. Instead of the usual white wine, we use vermouth for extra flavor in the silky butter sauce. Stirring and swirling the butter rapidly into the vermouth is the key to a smooth emulsion. A little lemon juice and zest, plus a mixture of parsley, tarragon, and chives, provides a nice finishing touch.
A true Neapolitan-style pizza is a tough one to master at home—it requires very few ingredients (which means there's not much that can hide any mistakes) and an extremely high oven temperature. The latter you can get through grilling or using the skillet-broiler method. The former is a bit easier: Try to get your hands on a high-protein flour, like Italian-style "OO" flour, and weigh your ingredients out precisely.
This is the kind of gloriously rich eggplant parm most Americans know and love, with fat slices of eggplant breaded and fried, then loaded up with mozzarella, Parmesan, and tomato sauce. The hardest part, arguably, is the eggplant: Pick slender Italian eggplants if you can find them (they're denser, with fewer seeds), and precook them in the microwave before frying to remove some of their air. If a less gut-busting eggplant parm sounds like your style, seek out Daniel's recipe for Italian-style melanzane alla parmigiana.
Arancini, the golden-fried, cheese- or vegetable- or meat-stuffed rice balls native to Sicily, have the potential to be so much better than what they often are, which is sadly dry and flavorless. To achieve the arancini of your dreams, use short-grain Asian rice for tender grains that hold their shape. A saffron-scented béchamel sauce helps the insides of the rice balls stay soft instead of drying up.
This fluffy, moist, chewy focaccia requires a good bit of resting time, but very little hands-on work, as it's completely no-knead. For that reason, it's a good choice when you need a make-ahead accompaniment to dinner. We stud it with bits of roasted garlic throughout and coat the top with garlic butter to double up on flavor; baking it in a cast iron skillet gets it beautifully browned and crisp on top.
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