As I've mentioned before, I'm a very big lover of cookbooks. I have several shelves of them in every type and description. Some of them are veritable tomes of culinary knowledge, very dry reading without many pictures. Others, however, are as fun to read as a graphic novel, with lots and lots of anecdotes and full colour photographs!
One such cookbook came into my life completely by accident. I was on the phone, agreeing (in a moment of weakness) to join yet another book of the month club. (These clubs are like vampires, they can only come in if you invite them, but once you do, look out!). This particular club was for cookbooks, and, well, as I said, I have something of a weakness for cookbooks. As a thank you for signing up, I got to choose a free book from two selections. I don't remember the first choice, but the second was The Sopranos Family Cookbook. I hadn't started watching The Sopranos at this point, but I was familiar with it, so I chose that book. I remember thinking that if I didn't care for it, I could give it away.
The book arrived a few weeks later. As is my practice with a new cookbook, I settled in to read it. By the end of the first chapter I knew three things for sure: One, I was keeping the cookbook, two, I really wanted to see this show, and three, we were going to be making a trip to the grocery store, soon!
We've made a lot of meals from that cookbook over the years. From basic "Marinara Sauce" to "Bistecca Pizzaiola" this is the book I turn to time and again for homestyle Italian recipes. Some have become family favorites, such as "Eggs in Purgatory," which features eggs poached in zesty marinara sauce and served over garlic bread topped with mozzarella cheese. One weekend we decided to tackle the "Sunday Gravy" recipe. This is the original meat sauce; it uses pork neck bones or spareribs, veal stew meat or veal shoulder bones (we used beef ribs instead of veal), Italian sausage, and ground beef or pork. It was a lot of work, and it was much richer than the pasta sauces we are used to, but it was delicious and well worth it. However, after all that work, I just wanted to taste it as it was instead of using it in a recipe. I think we made a "cheat's" version of Baked Ziti at the time, but we always intended to go back and make the actual ziti recipe.
Fast forward a few years to a couple weeks ago, and it was finally time to make the ziti! I had made a huge pot of meat sauce (not Sunday Gravy) to make lasagna and I had quite a bit left over so I decided to make the ziti (it was a pasta kind of week!). Even though I wasn't using the Gravy, I did make the Little Meatballs and added them to the meat sauce. This recipe itself isn't really difficult, preparation is a pleasant amount of basic cookery; chopping, grating, boiling, and assembly. Once I slid it into the oven I settled back to wait for it. I was interested in how this recipe would turn out; I was sure it would be tasty but I couldn't see how it differ much from lasagna.
Oh, how wrong I was.
While Baked Ziti does use essentially the same ingredients as lasagna, there is alchemy in the preparation, construction, and design of this dish that transforms it into something else entirely. Suffice to say, lasagna has met it's match in our house. The layering of the ingredients gives the same experience as lasagna in that you get to savour several tastes and textures in one bite. The difference, as far as I can tell, lies in the use of smaller pieces. The smaller ziti pasta, the tiny meatballs, and the cubed mozzarella all meld with the sauce, ricotta, and Parmesan cheese and make this dish ooey gooey wonderful. Although it would be delicious any time of year, it is picture perfect for cold Fall and Winter nights.
This link will take you to a version of the recipe that's very close to what is in the cookbook. The only difference that I can see is that the cook, like myself, used their own sauce instead of the Sunday Gravy. If you're picky, the cookbook instructions say to cut the 8 ounces of mozzarella into a "fine dice" while the cook of the link version says "small pieces." I'm probably splitting hairs but to me there's a difference. Or, you could pick up the cook book; I notice that Amazon does still sell it. It's a great read, especially for fans of the show. Enjoy!!