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. Stay tuned for more story on this one. But in the meantime? Please do make 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.
- For the Roasted Tomatoes
- 15 Roma tomatoes
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 a head of garlic (about six cloves) peeled and minced
- 8 sprigs fresh thyme (about 2 tablespoons of the tiny leaves)
- For the Sauce
- Innards (seeds juice and flesh) from 15 halved Roma tomatoes, smashed or partially blended with an immersion blender or hand masher
- 1/2 cup good red wine
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 Tbsp fresh minced oregano leaves
- 1 small can tomato paste
- Flesh from the oven roasted tomatoes (discard the skins)
- 1 medium white or yellow onion, peeled, cored and finely chopped
- 1/2 head of garlic (about six cloves) peeled and minced
- 2 Tbsp water
- 1/2 pound fresh, mild Italian sausage, casings removed
- 1/2 pound ground round (beef)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
- 1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and very finely chopped
- 1 3/4 pound package medium-wide curly egg noodles
- 1/2 pound Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese, finely grated
- 1 1/2 cups fresh mozzarella pearls
- 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 and roast the tomatoes for 40 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and continue roasting the tomatoes for another 1/2 hour.
- 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. Set aside.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil, adding the water to keep from browning, and cook until soft. Remove the onion and garlic to a separate bowl. Return the skillet to the stove top over medium heat. Add the sausage and ground beef and brown until cooked through. Mix the onion and garlic back into the meat. Set aside, covered.
- After the tomato sauce has simmered for 40 minutes, adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper.
- 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. Stir in the meats. Stir in the diced greed pepper (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".) Set the mixture aside.
- Cook and drain the egg noodles according to package directions.
- 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. Serve hot.
- This recipe makes one, big, deep-dish casserole. But you can also portion the Johnny Marzetti into individual ovenable cups.