Baked ziti with meatballs features easy homemade meatballs AND marinara sauce for a delicious and hearty pasta bake. This recipe is total comfort food for a crowd.
This recipe for baked ziti with meatballs has been a long time coming! It’s what I referred to in my easy Instant Pot sauerkraut post as an integral part of our traditional potluck-y Christmas Eve dinner. Since we’ll be rounding the bend into all-things-holiday very soon, I thought I’d better get moving on my plans to share the recipe with you this year.
As far as I’m concerned, this baked ziti with meatballs is pure comfort food.
Pasta bakes are already something special, but when you add in lots of homemade marinara sauce, juicy meatballs, and, oh yeah, CHEESE, everything gets bumped up a notch. This is a hearty meal that would be perfect for chilly weekend nights, family gatherings, or holidays.
Plus since it makes a lot of servings, you can reheat leftover portions for a super speedy way to enjoy a totally homemade meal on weeknights. Because when the craving strikes, it strikes.
Let’s talk meatballs! My preferred method of making meatballs is to bake them. Really they couldn’t be easier: mix up ingredients, scoop into balls, and bake. These meatballs first hit the blog in this hearty marinara sauce and meatballs recipe, which is affectionately known as ‘Sunday sauce’ around here.
Speaking of, the marinara sauce is the same here too, just scaled down a bit. While it does take some time to simmer on the stove to allow the flavors to meld, the pay off is worth it. Easy ingredients come together to form a perfectly spiced homemade marinara sauce that helps make this baked ziti with meatballs dish a classic family favorite.
I suggest starting this recipe by setting up the sauce and allowing it to simmer while you bake the meatballs and cook the pasta. That way is usually the most efficient time-wise, though see below for some make ahead tips to make the day-of a little easier.
Because this baked ziti with meatballs makes a good amount, you’ll want to use a large baking dish so it doesn’t bubble over while it’s baking. Cleaning the oven after something like that? Never fun.
I usually use this rectangular baking dish when I make baked ziti (it’s the one you see in these pictures). Its large dimensions and over 3″ of depth keep all of this saucy goodness contained. It also holds up very well to temperature changes, from refrigeration to the oven to most broiling scenarios.
Plus when all is said and done, right into the dishwasher it goes. Can’t beat that.
Can you assemble baked ziti ahead of time?
Short answer: yes.
Longer answer: yes, and you can pick and choose which steps you’d like to make ahead. Here are some options:
- Make the meatballs ahead of time and refrigerate or freeze-then-thaw.
- Make the sauce (sans meatballs) ahead of time and refrigerate or freeze-then-thaw.
- Make the sauce and meatballs ahead of time and refrigerate or freeze-then-thaw.
- Prep and assemble everything ahead of time and then refrigerate. If you’ll be moving the baked ziti dish from the refrigerator to the oven quickly, I recommend covering it all with foil to prevent oven spillover. Also make sure the baking dish you use is OK with a quick-ish temperature change.
Baked ziti with meatballs recipe notes:
- Use your preferred percentage of ground beef as excess fat will be cooked out and left behind on the baking sheet. I’m partial to using ground chuck (80/20).
- I used ziti rigati for this batch, which is why you see ridges in the pasta in these photos. No other reason than that’s what I had on hand. Regular ziti is perfectly fine.
- You can use jarred marinara sauce if you’re looking for a shortcut. Plan to use about 5 cups in place of the sauce recipe included in the recipe card below. I suggest using jarred sauce in the pasta aisle versus canned “tomato sauce” found by the crushed tomatoes, as it has more pronounced seasonings included.
- If you prefer to make this baked ziti with meatballs without red meat, this recipe for Italian baked turkey meatballs would be a wonderful substitute for those listed below.
Baked ziti with meatballs features easy homemade meatballs AND marinara sauce for a delicious and hearty pasta bake. This recipe is total comfort food for a crowd and makes a wonderful holiday dinner.
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes
- 1 1/2 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
- 1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 lb ground beef (I used 80/20)
- 1 lb ziti
- 15 oz ricotta cheese
- 4 oz mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 2 tbsp butter, cut into 8 equal pieces
- Fresh basil, for serving
Add olive oil to a large, heavy-bottomed pot set over medium heat. Add chopped onion and cook for 5-6 minutes, or until turning golden. Add minced garlic and saute for another 1-2 minutes.
Pour in crushed tomatoes and add basil and oregano. Give everything a good stir. Once bubbling, reduce heat to a simmer. Let sauce simmer while you prepare the meatballs and pasta, or until it has thickened and the flavors are to your liking. While simmering, stir the sauce up from the bottom periodically.
Preheat oven to 350°F and spray a large rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray.
Beat eggs in a large bowl. Add Parmesan, breadcrumbs, parsley, salt, and pepper and stir to combine.
Add beef and mix everything together using your hands (or a wooden spoon) until just combined.
Portion out meatballs using a 1-1/2 tbsp capacity cookie scoop and space them evenly apart on the sheet. Bake for 25-27 minutes, or until nice and browned. Let cool on the pan.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the ziti and cook to the al dente time according to the package directions (which was 8 minutes).
Once the pasta is cooked, drain and set aside.
Stir together the marinara sauce and the ricotta cheese in a large mixing bowl.
Add the cooked pasta to the bowl and stir to coat the ziti well.
Grease a large and fairly deep baking dish (the one pictured is 13" x 9" x 3") with cooking spray. Pour in the pasta and sauce and lightly press into an even layer.
Using cooking tongs, lift the baked meatballs off of the baking sheet, leaving excess fat behind. Nestle the meatballs evenly into the pasta in the baking dish.
Scatter shredded mozzarella evenly over top of the pasta. Place the small butter pats equally apart from one another on top of the mozzarella.
Bake at 350°F for 30-40 minutes, or until bubbling and the mozzarella has become melty and golden brown. Garnish with chopped fresh basil for serving.
The small pats of butter melt over top of the cheese and add a luxurious touch to this special pasta dish. That said you can omit the butter if you're not feeling it.
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