When I was in graduate school in New York City, I loved an inexpensive cafeteria-style Italian restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen called Manganaro’s Hero Boy. The now-shuttered eatery dated back to 1893 and closed recently due to COVID. Their hero sandwiches were incredible. But I also really liked their baked ziti with a rich tasting tomato sauce. On a recent visit back to NYC I finally learned the secret of their sauce (don’t use fresh tomatoes, use canned). Here is my version of Manganaro’s baked ziti, although I prefer rigatoni pasta.
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly mashed
- 1 28 oz. can good-quality peeled Italian tomatoes (You can also use crushed tomatoes or tomato puree.)
- 1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
- 1/2 tsp. red-chili flakes (optional)
- a few fresh basil leaves
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp. sugar
- 1 lb. dried pasta: ziti, rigatoni or penne (I usually prefer rigatoni)
- 8 oz. fresh mozzarella – half cut into small cubes and half thinly sliced
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Preheat an oven to 400 degrees F.
- Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic cloves and saute until lightly browned, about 5-7 minutes.
- Remove and discard the cooked garlic. You want to infuse the olive oil for the sauce (or sugo) with the garlic, but not have bitter garlic in the sauce.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and let it cool for a few minutes. Then, add the peeled tomatoes, tomato sauce, fresh basil, chili flakes and a few grinds of black pepper. If you add the tomatoes to the hot pan it can splatter and burn you, not to mention make a mess. That’s why I allow the olive oil to cool before adding the sauce ingredients.
- Use a spoon, spatula, or potato masher to break up the peeled tomatoes if you use whole tomatoes.
- Bring the sauce to a boil, then turn down the heat and allow the sauce to simmer for 1/2 hour. Just before using the sauce, remove and discard the basil leaves and stir in the 1/2 tsp. Sugar.
- Chop half of the mozzarella balls into small cubes and slice the rest, thinly.
- While the sauce is simmering, cook the pasta according to package directions in a large pot of boiling water, just to al dente.
- Drain the cooked pasta and transfer to an oiled baking dish or casserole. Pour in the sauce, along with the cubed mozzarella and 1/2 cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Stir to mix well.
- Top the pasta with the sliced mozzarella and the remaining 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bake in the oven for 1/2 hour, or until the cheese is bubbly.
Serve with a fresh green salad. Mangia!
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Originally trained as an anthropologist, Ted Scheffler is a seasoned food, wine & travel writer based in Utah. He loves cooking, skiing, and spends an inordinate amount of time tending to his ever-growing herd of guitars and amplifiers.