Classic Casseroles

Johnny Marzetti Casserole

September 19, 2018

Johnny Marzetti could very well be America’s best loved and longest standing comfort casserole. A mix of ground meat, tomato sauce, garlic, onion, cheese and noodles, the dish has populated community cookbooks nationwide for decades under the guise of Salmagundi, Hamburger Hotdish, Elbow Goulash—even Irish Monkey (!) But as the story goes, Johnny Marzetti is both the “real” name of this dish, and  one of Columbus, Ohio’s most prominent early businessmen whose brother Joe and sister-in-law Teresa had a restaurant called Marzetti’s. I just wrote a cover story for the food section of the Chicago Tribune on this : ) Please enjoy the story of the men, the myths and the legendary dish–and  do try my version of the dish! Unlike bland community cookbook renditions which often include processed cheese food and canned soup in the mix, my version gets its deep rich flavors from fresh herbs, garlic, a blend of Italian sausage and ground beef, red wine and  the real star: oven roasted and caramelized tomatoes and onions—the best possible way to transform these vegetables into flavor-packed morsels of goodness.

To make the roast tomatoes and onions, you halve 15 Romas lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and most of the flesh into a cooking pot. Then you arrange the scooped-out roma “shells” on a baking sheet, sprinkle them with garlic, thyme and olive oil. After this, cut four large onions into rings in a separate dutch oven, sprinkle with oil and a 1/2 cup of water, cover. While the tomatoes and onions roast in the oven, you begin a lovely tomato sauce from the Roma innards, garlic, olive oil,  and good red wine. Once the oven roast vegetables are ready, you add those to the sauce along with the browned meats, make a batch of egg noodles, mix all together in your casserole dish, dot with cute little buttons of fresh mozzarella (called “pearl” mozzarella) give it all a good melt and call the company.

I’ve specified that you use curly egg noodles, which have a nice texture and were used in the earliest rendition of the dish published in 1916 in the Columbus Dispatch, but you can substitute any kind of pasta—noodles extruded through a bronze die that have with ridges on the sides such as gigle (campanelle), or crested di galle are really nice in this dish.

NOTE: This recipe makes one, big deep-dish casserole. But I sometimes portion it into individual serving bakers, which are cute, and give each person more opportunity to enjoy those crunchy bits that form on the sides and edges of every good casserole.

Johnny Marzetti Casserole
Serves 8
One of America's best-beloved casseroles, Johnny Marzetti is a mix of ground meat, tomato sauce, garlic, fresh herbs, noodles and melted cheese. My version includes oven-roasted tomatoes for a super flavor boost.
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Prep Time
30 min
Cook Time
2 hr 30 min
Total Time
3 hr
Prep Time
30 min
Cook Time
2 hr 30 min
Total Time
3 hr
Ingredients
  1. For the Roasted Tomatoes and Onions
  2. 15 Roma tomatoes
  3. 2 Tbsp olive oil
  4. 1/2 a head of garlic (about six cloves) peeled and minced
  5. 8 sprigs fresh thyme (about 2 tablespoons of the tiny leaves)
  6. 4 large white or yellow onions, peeled and sliced into rings
  7. 1/2 cup water
  8. 1 tsp olive oil
  9. For the Sauce
  10. Innards (seeds juice and flesh) from 15 halved Roma tomatoes, smashed or partially blended with an immersion blender or hand masher
  11. 1/2 cup good red wine
  12. 1 Tbsp olive oil
  13. 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  14. 1 Tbsp fresh minced oregano leaves
  15. 1 small can San Marzano tomato paste
  16. Flesh from the oven roasted tomatoes (discard the skins)
  17. Roasted and caramelized onions, chopped
  18. For the Browned Meats
  19. 1/2 head of garlic (about six cloves) peeled and minced
  20. 1 Tbsp olive oil
  21. 2 Tbsp water
  22. 1/2 pound fresh, mild Italian sausage, casings removed
  23. 1/2 pound ground round (beef)
  24. 1 tsp salt
  25. 1 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
  26. 1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and very finely chopped (OPTIONAL. You can also substitute red pepper, or omit pepper entirely)
To assemble casserole
  1. 1 3/4 pound package medium-wide curly egg noodles
  2. 1/2 pound Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese, finely grated
  3. 1 1/2 cups fresh mozzarella pearls
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Halve 15 Roma tomatoes lengthwise. Using a grapefruit spoon, or, apple corer, scoop out the flesh and seeds from the inside of the Romas and place these tomato innards into a heavy-bottomed cooking pot. Cover a large cookie sheet (half-sheet pan) with parchment paper. Place the Roma "shells" , cut-side up, in rows on the parchment paper. Sprinkle the tomato shells with the minced garlic and with the thyme leaves. Drizzle with olive oil. Place in the center of the oven. Place the onion rings in dutch oven with 1/2 cup of water and sprinkle of olive oil. Cover dutch oven. Roast both onions and tomatoes for 40 minutes. Reduce heat to 350. Remove cover from the onions. Stir, and continue roasting the tomatoes and onions for another 40 minutes to one hour until onions are reduced and caramelized and tomatoes are flattened, thoroughly roasted and browned on edges.
  2. While the tomatoes are roasting, place the cooking pot with the tomato innards on the stove top over very low heat. Mash or partially blend the raw tomatoes. Add the minced garlic, oregano, olive oil and red wine and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Whisk in the tomato paste and continue simmering for another 20 minutes. Add a bit more red wine or a bit of water if the sauce is too thick. Turn heat to very lowest setting and allow to keep warm, adding small bit of water and stirring as needed.
  3. In a large skillet over medium heat, saute the six cloves minced garlic in 1 Tbsp olive oil, adding the water to keep from browning, and cook until soft. Add the sausage and ground beef and brown until cooked through. Set aside, covered.
  4. After the tomato sauce has simmered for at least minutes, adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper.
  5. When the Roma tomatoes in the oven have finished roasting, cool the tomatoes until they can be handled. Slip off the tomato skins. (save them to eat later--they're good!) Chop the roasted tomato flesh and add to the sauce pot. Chop the caramelized onions and add to the pot. Stir in the browned meat/garlic mixture. Stir in the diced greed pepper, if using (Note: I do not cook the pepper because I want it to stay bright green--the heat from the cooked sauce plus being in the oven for 20 minutes will ensure the pepper bits won't be "raw". You can also use red pepper, or omit entirely.) Set the mixture aside.
  6. Cook and drain the egg noodles according to package directions.
  7. Mix the cooked noodles with the sauce and the grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and fill the casserole dish with the mixture. Dot the top of the casserole with the mozzarella pearls. Place the casserole in the oven for 20 minutes or until the cheese has melted and casserole is bubbly. Serve hot.
Notes
  1. This recipe makes one, big, 3-quart deep-dish casserole. But you can also portion the Johnny Marzetti into individual ovenable cups.
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