What happens when chef Lili Dagan combines her lifelong passion for cooking with her new found love of the Sopranos? A baked pasta dish for the ages.

baked pasta topped with cheese and basil
Just look at that cheese

Every winter, I say I’m going to watch The Sopranos. Somehow, I never get around to it. Whenever my fellow test kitchen Chef Lauren asks me how it’s going, I have the same answer: “I’m waiting for a blizzard, so that I have time to really get into it.”  Well, here I am, the cherry blossoms in peak bloom outside my window, 40-odd hours into a blizzard with Tony, Paulie, Furio, and most importantly, my girl Carmela, who makes a mean ziti.

The eating doesn’t stop there, the entire show is full of culinary wisdom: “Well, when you’re married, you’ll understand the importance of fresh produce!” Tony exclaims to Meadow. Clairvoyant. Everywhere these guys eat, whether it’s at Vesuvio’s, or Sunday dinner with Father Intintola, Vodka sauce flows freely. Someone is in crisis? Baked Ziti makes an appearance. 

What does it all mean? I am sure there is a small library somewhere filled with graduate theses about the food on The Sopranos underscoring themes of identity, masculinity, family, and culture. For me, it means I need to make a baked pasta right now.  

There are a few parts to this dish but when they come together, it’s worth it. Buon Appetito. 

baked pasta shells with cheese
Cheesy, saucy, delightful

For the vodka sauce and pasta:

  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 ½ tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 28 oz whole peeled tomatoes
  • ½ cup vodka
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 lb pasta (penne, rigatoni, or shells would all be good choices here)
  • 8 oz fresh mozzarella, sliced into rounds

For the herbed ricotta:

  • 8 oz fresh ricotta
  • ½ cups chopped parsley and basil (if you have chives, tarragon or other tender herbs, use those too)
  • ¼ cup freshly grated parmesan
  • Zest of one lemon 
  • Salt and pepper

For the garlic breadcrumbs:

  • 1 tbsp butter 
  • ½ cup panko
  • 1 garlic clove, grated

Make the vodka sauce:

1. Melt the butter in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and cook for 5-7 minutes until translucent. 

2. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, and dried oregano and cook for 1-2 minutes, until softened and fragrant. 

3. Add the vodka and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the canned tomatoes, crushing the whole tomatoes with your hands as you add. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

4. Add the heavy cream, and blend the sauce with an immersion blender. Simmer for ten minutes more. If you don’t have an immersion blender, transfer the puree to a blender or food processor and blend, then return to the pot to simmer. If you don’t have any of those things, the sauce will have more texture but will still be perfectly delicious. 

Make the herbed ricotta:

1. Using a rubber spatula, fold together all the ingredients in a medium bowl. Season to taste.

Make your garlic breadcrumbs:

1. Heat butter over medium heat in a 6” skillet until melted.  

2. Add the panko and grated garlic. Stir to combine, and toss frequently until panko is golden brown. 

3. Season with salt and pepper and remove from heat. 

Cook the pasta and assemble your bake:

1. Preheat the oven to 425° F. 

2. Cook the pasta according to al dente package directions, then drain and add to the vodka sauce. Stir thoroughly to coat. 

3. Transfer pasta and sauce to a 11X7 baking dish, and top with the sliced mozzarella. 

Note: When Janice tries to pass a ziti off as her own, she’s outed because the dish carries Carmela’s signature—basil leaves under the mozzarella. Don’t forget to place a basil leaf under each mozzarella round.  

before you bake your pasta
The Carmella touch

4. Dollop the herbed ricotta between the mozzarella rounds. 

5. Bake for ten minutes, or until mozzarella is golden brown. Top with breadcrumbs and broil for 1-2 minutes. 

6. Allow the baked pasta to cool for about 5 minutes. Top with fresh basil.  BUON APPETITO.