"This is an incredible dish made straight from the heart. Crisp, burnt rigatoni edges; melted mozzarella cheese; rich, sweet tomato sauce; and little meatballs all nestled inside this beautiful mess. Dishes like this are low risk and high reward. How many renditions of this dish are out there, I have no idea: Every nonna or nonno or Italian American or Italian Canadian parent has his or her own version. Some may add basil leaves, dried oregano, more Parmesan, maybe even some Asiago, or all-pork balls, all-beef, or a combination or the holy trinity: veal, pork, and beef. I want to make you my version, which is inspired by my mother-in-law and my lovely wife. I had another mind-blowing experience the first time Carol made this for me. I thought pasta was powdered cheese and overcooked little noodles that were mixed with water instead of milk or cream, and not even a nice little knob of heavenly butter. But then I saw this bubbling, glowing, cheesy casserole coming out of the oven like a newborn rigatoni baby, and it was instant love. I knew I would fight for this dish if anyone ever disrespected it—I would stand behind it like an overprotective uncle who’s had one too many brown pops at a little league baseball game. I hope that when you pull this casserole out of the oven, it’s one of those moments like seeing the Sistine Chapel or the ocean for the first time." – Matty Matheson. 

Yield: Serves 4 Total Time: 1.5 hours

Ingredients

  • 225 g ground pork

  • 225 g ground veal

  • 225 g ground beef

  • 1 egg

  • 100 g freshly grated

  • Parmesan cheese

  • 50g dry breadcrumbs

  • 1 handful chopped flat-leaf parsley

  • Kosher salt

  • 10 turns freshly cracked black pepper

  • 1 tablespoon dried red chile flakes

  • 2 tablespoons peeled and minced garlic

  • Olive oil

  • 2 litres gravy

  • 2 (16-ounce/455 g) boxes dried large rigatoni

  • 2 balls mozzarella cheese, one cubed and one shredded

Method

Place all the ground meat in a large bowl. Crack the egg on top and add the Parmesan, bread crumbs, parsley, 2 teaspoons salt, the pepper, chilli flakes, garlic, 4 tablespoons (60 ml) oil, and 2 tablespoons water. Mix with your hands—make sure to dig deep with your fingers and use your shoulders to really work the mixture.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place two spoons in a cup of water; use one spoon for scooping and the other for scraping off. Make sure to dip your spoons into the water every other scoop. Scoop 1 tablespoon meat and scrape it onto the baking sheet; make little rows until done. Lightly coat your hands with oil and form the meat piles into perfect little balls.

Preheat the oven to 400°F (205°C). In a Dutch oven, pour ½ inch (12 mm) of oil and set over medium-high heat. Place the balls in the pot, but don’t overcrowd the pot. Brown the meatballs in batches and place on a rack while you build your casserole.

We are going to build the casserole hot so it just has to brown in the oven. In a small pot, heat the gravy. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil; cook the pasta until al dente. Check the pasta every few minutes to make sure you’re not overcooking. Because we are baking in the oven, we don’t want mushy noodles! We want perfect rigatoni.

Drain the pasta and pour most of it into a 9 by 13-inch (23 by 33 cm) baking dish, then add enough sauce to cover the noodles and stir. You don’t want the casserole soupy and you don’t want it dry; you can always add, but you can never take away. That’s why I like building this by eye once all the ingredients are ready: You can add more sauce, meatballs, and rigatoni depending on your tastes. Stir the cubed mozzarella into the casserole, then add as many meatballs as you want. Stir to evenly disperse everything, then cover with a few ladles of sauce and the shredded mozzarella. Bake 20 minutes, or until the edges are almost burnt, the cheese is golden brown, and the sauce is bubbling. Remove from the oven and let rest 10 minutes.