Layers of penne pasta and ground meat smothered in ultra-rich marinara sauce topped with plenty of cheeses (but not too many), and a flavorful spices combination. The famous Olive Garden Baked Ziti may just become your new family's favorite healthy version of baked pasta dish.
In my copycat version for healthy baked ziti, we are going to use 3 cheese blends instead of 5.
And we are going to skip the bread crumbs story altogether. You can add these, but it’s totally optional.
Olive Garden Baked Ziti, Ziti Al Forno, Baked Pasta, and Baked Ziti - essentially these are all different names for one great and easy recipe.
It is almost like lasagna but so much easier to make. This recipe makes a lot and is the ultimate comfort food.
If you love pasta recipes you should definitely try these readers' favorite recipes next time: Chicken Fajita Pasta, Tomato Eggplant Pasta, Gigi Hadid's Spicy Vodka Pasta, Old Fashioned Hamburger Casserole.
Table Of Contents
My few comments on the ingredients + don't forget to read the Tips section!
The full recipe and ingredients can be found in the recipe card below this post.
Olive Garden Baked Ziti is a baked pasta dish with 5 types of Italian cheeses, marinara sauce, and breadcrumbs topping. It is rich, dense, and high in calories.
Today we are going to learn how to make a healthy baked ziti (just a little healthier, at least!) and enjoy some flavorful dish with fewer calories.
- Type of pasta - I’ve used penne pasta (as it is the easiest gluten-free pasta to find rather than gluten-free ziti), but any type of smaller pasta will work for this baked ziti. Ziti, fusilli, and penne work well because they have so many nooks and crannies that are perfect for cradling meaty sauce, herbs, and cheese. More gluten-free choices I like to use for these type of casseroles: red lentil pasta, elbow macaroni and even rotini.
- Parmesan cheese - use a block of parmesan cheese and grated it yourself at home. It will melt better than ready-made.
- Ground beef - Lean ground beef has been used in this recipe to reduce the overall fat content, but you can use regular ground beef or a mix of beef and pork. Ground chicken and ground turkey, Italian sausage, or breakfast sausage are other alternatives to using here. For vegetarian ziti, try my vegan meat instead from this delicious Vegan Meat Taco recipe.
- Aromatics - onion and plenty of fresh garlic are what add great flavor when browning the ground beef. You could also use onion and garlic powder or garlic salt instead. But it will be not the same as fresh!
- Cheeses - Colby Jack, cheddar cheese, fontina cheese, provolone cheese, romano cheese, gouda or mozzarella cheese are all cheeses suitable for mixing up for baked ziti.
- Ricotta cheese - I prefer this over cottage cheese (which is also an option to use here). They are similar but ricotta has low fat and low sodium compared to cottage cheese. Cream cheese is another option if you don’t have any of these.
- Ziti sauce - marinara sauce or any tomato sauce with or without seasonings and herbs (pasta sauce, pizza sauce, passata) will work. Use a good quality one as it is the base of this recipe. Crushed tomatoes (if that's the only thing you have) would be your last resort and you'll have to add some tomato paste to get the rich tomato flavor.
Let’s learn how to make a healthy Olive Garden baked ziti.
Cook ziti or penne pasta according to package directions (Al dente). Drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process.
Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
In a large skillet, over medium heat, add olive oil or vegetable oil that you use for cooking. Once oil is hot saute onion for 1 minute, add garlic and saute for another 1 minute.
Add the ground meat breaking it apart until it’s nicely browned. Once the meat is becoming brown, stir in the spices.
Cook for about 2 minutes until seasonings are incorporated and fragrant.
Stir in the marinara sauce. Take it to a boil and reduce the what to medium-low. Simmer for 10 minutes.
Taste for salt and black pepper and adjust if necessary. Remove from heat.
Pour half of the meat sauce over the pasta. Stir to combine.
Spread half of the ziti evenly into an 8x10 (or 8x11) inch baking dish. Top with ricotta and half of the mozzarella cheese.
Add another layer of remaining ziti on top. And now pour in the remaining meat sauce.
Assemble the last layer with parmesan, and leftover mozzarella cheese.
Cover with aluminum foil and bake on the center oven rack for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes until the cheese is melted and slightly becoming golden brown.
Remove the baked ziti from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Sprinkle freshly chopped parsley or basil on top before serving. Enjoy!.
- Measuring Cups and Spoons - measure all your salad ingredients and seasonings with those superb tools without stress! Easy to wash!
- Cheese Grater - grate a block of cheese yourself, it will melt away better than pre-packed shredded cheese.
- Since the pasta will continue to cook in the oven, be sure to cook it al dente beforehand.
- Cooking the pasta separately is important. If you don’t, then you are likely to end up with undercooked pasta in the casserole. Just follow the package instructions and just don't overcook it.
- This healthy baked ziti can be made ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator or the freezer, covered with plastic wrap. Read more in the Storing and Freezing section.
- This easy casserole recipe can be bulked up by adding vegetables, such as bell pepper, shredded carrots, green beans, green peppers, or mushrooms. You'll have to reduce the pasta amount slightly in this case.
When you cook the pasta, rinse it under cold water and don’t toss with any olive oil. This will not be helpful when mixing the pasta with marinara sauce. On the contrary, it will prevent the sauce from getting into the pasta layers.
What goes with Baked Ziti?
Here's a couple of suggestions we like to serve with baked ziti. It is a fulfilling dish so you don’t want to have any heavy side dishes here.
A simple Arugula or lettuce mix with a little balsamic and olive oil are even faster and is often served in Italian restaurants.
Also from the classics would be garlic bread but we usually don’t serve pasta with bread as it, in my opinion, is way too much bread in one meal.
I would substitute this with a glass of good old white wine. This is the “classic” side dish for our pasta 🙂
Freezing And Storing Instructions
Store. Any leftovers can be stored in the fridge for u to 3-4 days. Let the casserole cool before refrigerating.
Freeze. Transfer the casserole into an airtight container or use the same casserole dish. Tightly cover it and freeze it for up to 1-2 months.
Prior to reheating, thaw it overnight in the fridge and bake in the oven covered in foil at 350 F for about 10-15 minutes.
You can top up with more cheese in the last 5 minutes and garnish with fresh herbs before serving.
Make ahead. Just follow the steps to assemble the casserole dish (but without the pasta) and keep it in the fridge for 1-2 days. If you add the pasta right away, it will soak up all the sauce and you’ll end up with a dry ziti pasta dish.
When ready to serve, let it come to room temperature and continue with the baking steps as per these recipe instructions.
More Olive Garden Copycat Recipes
If you love this recipe, be sure to try these copycat recipes next and let me know what you think.
One Pot Zuppa Toscana - You gonna love this, as the entire recipe is made in one pot and requires less than 30 minutes of your time.
Pasta Fagioli Soup - Rich and dense tomato soup simmered with beef, healthy veggies, spices, beans, and ditalini pasta are sure to become one of the most requested recipes in your family.
Vegetarian Minestrone Soup - This soup is wholesome, extremely flavorful, and appropriate for various dietary needs.
Yes, we loosely cover the baked ziti for the first half of baking. Then remove it and let the cheese melt and become bubbly.
Al Forno simply means baked food. It’s an Italian term and a way of preparing food in the oven. Pizza, pasta, lasagna, and bread. Ziti Al Forno is teh same as Baked Ziti in english.
Essentially Ziti is an Italian baked cheesy dish with tube-shaped pasta. Very fulfilling and easy to make.
Any smaller, tubular pasta such as penne, fusilli, rigatoni, macaroni, and cavatelli will be suitable for baked ziti.
Easy Casserole Recipes
ALL CASSEROLE recipes.
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Healthy Olive Garden’s Baked Ziti (Gluten Free)
- 10 oz gluten-free penne pasta
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic cloves
- ½ cup finely diced brown onion
- 1 pound of ground beef or pork or a mix of both
- 2 ⅓ cup marinara sauce
- 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
- ½ cup ricotta
- 1 cup mozzarella cheese (grated (grate it yourself for best melting results))
- ½ cup parmesan (freshly grated)
- fresh basil or parsley for garnish (finely chopped)
- 1 teaspoon smoked or sweet paprika
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon white granulated sugar (or brown sugar)
- ¼ teaspoon red chili flakes
- Cook ziti or penne pasta according to package directions (Al dente). Drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a large skillet, over medium heat, add olive oil or vegetable oil that you use for cooking. Once the oil is hot saute onion for 1 minute, add garlic and saute for another 1 minute.
- Add the ground meat breaking it apart until it’s nicely browned. Once the meat is becoming brown, stir in the spices. Cook for about 2 minutes until seasonings are incorporated and fragrant.
- Stir in the marinara sauce. Take it to a boil and reduce the what to medium-low. Simmer for 10 minutes.
- Taste for salt and black pepper and adjust if necessary. Remove from heat.
- Pour half of the meat sauce over the pasta. Stir to combine.
- Spread half of the ziti evenly into an 8x10 (or 8x11) inch baking dish. Top with ricotta and half of the mozzarella cheese.
- Add another layer of remaining ziti on top. And now pour in the remaining meat sauce.
- Assemble the last layer with parmesan, and leftover mozzarella cheese.
- Cover with aluminum foil and bake on the center oven rack for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes until the cheese is melted and slightly becoming golden brown.
- Remove the baked ziti from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Sprinkle freshly chopped parsley or basil on top before serving. Enjoy!.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)