Two classic Italian favorites meet in this satisfying, cheesy Pizza Pasta casserole


I dearly love pizza. I love it fresh and hot from the oven or leftover cold, right out of the refrigerator. I never tire of the various combinations of basil, oregano, garlic and onions; of fennel seeds, artichoke hearts, olives and tomato sauce; of fresh mozzarella, feta and pesto and spinach and peppery arugula. 

Add some grated Italian cheese like Pecorino Romano or Parmesan and finish with some fruity-bitter-grassy extra virgin olive oil and crushed, dried red pepper flakes — well, it’s just my favorite thing. Thankfully, my husband, Tom, loves pizza, too, so he does not mind that pizza is on our supper menu almost every week. I should say he doesn’t mind weekly pizza night as long as it’s my pizza we’re eating. It might be why our marriage is so good: He loves my pizza. 

This Pizza Pasta was born out of necessity when the disruptions of COVID-19 included being unable to procure my favorite frozen pizza crusts that I had grown to depend on for our weekly homemade pizza fix. The only shop that carries them is Ever’Man, my favorite semi-local food co-op in Pensacola, Florida. From the time I discovered them years ago, they were always in stock and stacked twenty or more high in the freezer case. These crusts make my pizza-loving dreams come true. They baked up crispy and delicious every time. I totally took them for granted. 

These special crusts also work for my gluten-sensitive, grain-sensitive, this-sensitive and that-sensitive person in my life who loves pizza almost as much as I do, but can’t stand the feeling of eating a “big dough ball.” Tom doesn’t readily admit to being grain-sensitive, but he never feels well when he eats it, and, frankly, I can do without it, too. They are made primarily of tapioca starch, but in addition to being grain-free, they are the reason my homemade pizzas are leagues better than anything we can get at a restaurant.  

I should probably tone down my ego a bit, waxing on about my  homemade pizzas being so superior, and make clear there isn’t much competition where we live. We neither live in nor are we nearby a “pizza city” where magnificent pies are readily available. In fact, we live in what I might call a pizza-deprived area of the country. I will say, however, that the gluten-free pizza down the beach at our beloved local drinking joint is pretty darn good, but mine really are better!  

The thing is, I have perfected the pizza that Tom and I prefer — a thin, crispy crust with well-done toppings and lots of flavorful herbs. It is the best to us. I get that it probably would not be the best to those with different pizza preferences. Although I change it up, our pies almost always have a pesto base with tiny diced onion, a little bit of feta and/or buffalo mozzarella, portobello mushrooms, lots of fennel seeds, basil and oregano with spinach or arugula, which I bake separately then place atop our pizza as it comes out of the oven. Lastly, I grate Pecorino Romano, drizzle extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkle crushed red pepper to finish. It is a taste sensation! 

For years I clicked along making my outstanding nutritious and delicious pizzas with my healthy grain-free crusts, basking in all the compliments I received, coasting through my pizza evenings on auto-pilot. Then a little thing called COVID-19 came along and really messed things up. All of a sudden the freezer cases at Ever’Man had big swaths of empty space where my favorite staples were once housed in large supply. After many months, their deliveries did pick up and become more regular, but my beloved grain-free crusts remained UNAVAILABLE. No one could say when they would be back in stock. 

And just like that, Pizza Pasta was born as a way to serve all my favorite pizza toppings — no crust required! And while eventually my crusts became available again, Pizza Pasta is here to stay. 


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Most of the time, I’m cooking for just Tom and me, so I make ours in one big 9-by-12″ casserole dish. But if you have a larger family or are having a group over, it’s fun to put out mixing bowls and small baking dishes, sauces, toppings and cheeses and allow people to create their own personal Pizza Pasta concoctions. It’s such an easy way to deal with everyone’s food allergies, sensitivities and preferences, while being really fun at the same time. People love to congregate in the kitchen, so set everything out buffet-style and let folks get creative. These days there is a type of pasta for everyone: some made from rice, from beans, from cassava (and from things you just can’t imagine could ever create pasta). 

And unlike many alternative-ingredient items, these various pastas don’t cost much more than regular wheat varieties.

Regardless of whether you are making Pizza Pasta for two or 22, you will need to pre-cook your toppings. Cook your pasta according to the directions on the package and allow time for it to completely cool. Be sure not to overcook it, keep it al dente, and cool it off with cold water immediately after pouring it into your colander. The pasta should be room temperature or cold when assembling your pies.

Cook any protein you want to include on the stovetop and drain off any fat. You will pre-bake your veggies in the oven. I use a large jelly roll pan for my vegetables. It’s as big as one of my oven racks and works perfectly as I can keep them separated and in the oven at once. If you have a “convection” option on your oven, use it to speed up the process and also keep your toppings crisp.    

Once your ingredients are pre-cooked, all you need is a greased baking dish and some imagination. The pasta becomes your crust, and it should be mixed with whatever base you like: pesto, tomato sauce, or olive oil with salted, roasted garlic are some of my favorites. Add a bit of cheese to your base-pasta as well. From there, you simply layer on your toppings and bake until hot. I use a larger baking dish for a thinner bake. Others prefer a thicker pasta base and, therefore, use a deeper, smaller dish. Basically, your pizza preferences get translated to this new platform. 

You won’t believe how good it is, and it really is lots of fun to create individual dishes to suit everyone’s preferences. My friend’s young daughter created her favorite while at my house. It is heavy on the pasta with lots and lots of cheese and chopped pepperoni. It looks a lot like macaroni and cheese with pepperoni, but that’s fine. It is a great supper for adults and children alike. I have no doubt it will become a top-requested menu item at your house as it has at mine.

Yields

 As many servings as you like

Ingredients

A small pasta variety, like penne, farfalle or shells, cooked according to package directions, rinsed and cooled.

Tomato based pizza sauce, red sauce, pesto or other choice of base.

Vegetable pizza toppings of choice — the sky’s the limit — chopped small and pre-baked.

Proteins of choice, chopped small and fully-cooked.

Cheeses of choice — mozzarella, feta, Italian shredded cheeses like Parmesan, Asiago or Pecorino Romano are some of my favorites.

Herbs and seasonings of choice — garlic, oregano, basil, Herbs de Provence, fennel seeds, crushed red pepper — whatever you like.
 

 

Directions

  1. The amount of each ingredient will depend on how many people you are serving and whether you are baking one dish or several smaller, individual dishes. Choose your ingredients according to everyone’s pizza topping preferences and pre-bake as follows:

  2. Proteins should be ground or cut into very small pieces, seasoned if necessary and cooked thoroughly on the stove, fat drained.

  3. Vegetables should be chopped small, placed on a lined pan, drizzled with olive oil and baked or roasted in a preheated oven at 350 degrees (use “Convection Bake” or “Convection Roast” if you have that option on your oven to speed up the pre-baking process and keep your vegetables crisp). Bake to your preference. 

  4. Note: If you like spinach or arugula on your pizza, I suggest spreading it out on its own baking sheet, allowing it to bake just to your preferred level of doneness, then adding it as a final layer to your Pizza Pasta just before serving.

  5. Grease your baking dish(es). Use a smaller, deeper dish if you like a thicker, softer “crust;” use a larger dish for a thinner “crust.”

  6. In a small bowl combine cooked and cooled pasta with the preferred base. Add a bit of cheese and herbs of choice (not too much as you will add more later) to your sauced pasta. Taste and add salt and other seasonings if desired. 

  7. Place the saucy pasta in the bottom of a greased baking dish.

  8. Sprinkle a layer of cheese over the pasta and add additional herbs of choice. (I love fennel seeds, basil and oregano.)

  9. Add pre-cooked toppings of choice except spinach and/or arugula (see note above). Once assembled, bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees until hot.

  10. Optionally, at the end of final baking, take out and add more cheese and return to the oven just until melted.

  11. Also optional, once your Pizza Pasta is hot and out of the oven, drizzle with olive oil and finish with a sprinkling of crushed red pepper and your favorite Parmesan or Pecorino Romano.
     


Cook’s Notes

Some combinations to try if you are having “Chef’s Block”
My mother’s favorite: Italian sausage and green pepper with a red sauce base and mozzarella. Topped with a light sprinkling of oregano and Parmesan to finish.

My family’s favorite: Portobello mushroom, onion, feta, chopped artichoke hearts and olives with a pesto base and lots of fennel seeds, oregano and basil. Finished with olive oil, crushed red peppers, and Pecorino Romano.

The kids’ favorite: Lots of mozzarella and pepperoni with a red sauce base and a little oregano. 

Another popular combination is pesto and chicken with roasted garlic and additional Italian seasonings and vegetable toppings of choice.

Convection Bake versus Regular Bake
I mentioned using the “convection bake” setting on your oven. If you don’t have that option, use a higher temperature like 400 degrees or so. I like my convection option as it keeps air flowing, which helps to reduce moisture overall and keep things crispier. It is certainly not necessary though. Plenty of wonderful Pizza Pastas have been made using your regular “bake” setting.

Base Ingredients
I don’t make my own bases other than occasionally having homemade pesto around. Store-bought brands work just fine. 
 

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