An easy, cheesy baked orecchiette pasta, with tons of spinach and optional pancetta or bacon. Perfect comfort food that makes for great leftovers, too!
Why I Love this Cheesy Baked Orecchiette!
- Baked cheese, tomato sauce and pasta is just great comfort food.
- The added bit of pancetta adds a lovely salty note to the dish.
- There’s a whole clamshell of baby spinach in this baked pasta :)
Ingredients and Substitutions
Orecchiette Pasta – (pronounced oh-reck-ee-ET-tay) which means “little ears” in reference to its unique shape. It’s not as popular as some pasta shapes, but its a nice change from the usual. Canadians can find a great Black Label version at Loblaws affiliated store. DeCecco also makes it and should be reasonably easy to find. It takes a surprisingly long time to cook, so taste often and cook until just al dente.
If you can’t find or don’t want to use Orecchiette pasta any short pasta will work, such as bowtie, penne or rotini etc.
Pancetta – adds a lovely salty note to this dish, which many baked pastas are lacking, in my opinion. You can use either pre-diced pancetta or get some slices from the deli counter and slice them into lardons. You could also use bacon in place of the pancetta. Of course, if you’re wanting a vegetarian dish, simply omit.
Spinach – baby spinach is the best option, as it can be used as is. You’ll need the full small clamshell for the 5 oz. specified. If you only have larger spinach leaves, simply chop down before adding. In a pinch, you could even use frozen spinach (thawed, squeezed dry and stirred in at the end and before baking).
Marinara Sauce – For the easiest preparation, grab a good quality jarred Marinara Sauce. Many swear by Rao’s, but I love the PC Black Label Marinara, which is made with just a few simple ingredients and is half the price of Rao’s. For a fully homemade version, you can certainly make your own marinara or use homemade marinara sauce that you tucked away in the freezer :)
Basil – fresh basil leaves are best if you have then. If not, dried basil is just fine.
Mozzarella Cheese – use simple pizza-type, low-moisture mozzarella. Provolone would also work here. Either way, simply shred and stir into the pasta.
Parmesan – Freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino is the finishing touch on this baked pasta.
- Boil a big pot of water, salt well and add the orecchiette pasta to cook.
- Brown the pancetta, then add the garlic and red pepper flakes.
- Add the spinach and cook until wilted.
- Add the marinara sauce.
- Use a slotted spoon or spider strainer to transfer the cooked orecchiette to the skillet, then stir in some shredded mozzarella.
- Top with a bit more mozzarella and some freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino, then bake 15-20 minutes, until bubbly.
Making Ahead, Storing and Freezing
This pasta warms up well and like many baked pastas, might even be better after sitting and re-warming! Store in the refrigerator, well-covered.
To re-warm, you can microwave covered with plastic wrap or re-warm in a 350F oven, covered with aluminum foil, until warmed through.
This pasta should freeze well for 2-3 months.
Get the Recipe: Cheesy Baked Orecchiette with Spinach
- 8 oz. orecchiette pasta, about 2 cups
- 1 teaspoon olive oil, for the pan
- 1/4 cup pancetta, diced or sliced (or bacon, or omit for vegetarian)
- 2 cloves garlic, diced
- 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 5 oz. baby spinach, about 7 cups
- 22-24 oz. jarred marinara sauce
- 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped, or about 1 Tablespoon dried basil leaves
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese, plus more for topping
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/4-1/3 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1/4 cup Parmesan or Pecorino, grated
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt generously, then add the orecchiette to cook. Cook until al dente, then use a slotted spoon or spider strainer to transfer to the skillet with the sauce.
- Preheat oven to 350F (regular bake/not fan assisted.)
- If you don't have an oven-safe skillet, make it on the stove-top in any skillet, then transfer the finished mixture to any oven-safe dish, top with cheese, then bake.
- Heat a bit of oil in an oven-safe skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta (or bacon) and cook, stirring, until browned. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, 30-45 seconds (*don't let the garlic scorch!). Add the spinach to the skillet and stir or toss in the skillet until wilted, about 1-2 minutes. Add the marinara sauce and stir to combine. *Taste the sauce at this point and add additional salt and some freshly ground pepper. Proper seasoning will really bring out the flavours!
- When the pasta is cooked to al dente, transfer to the skillet with the sauce and toss to coat well. Stir in the shredded mozzarella until well combined.
- Top with additional shredded mozzarella and Parmesan (*Tip! I like to add the mozzarella for the topping in 3 or 4 mounds, rather than evenly scattering. It makes a nice puddle of cheese as it bakes!).
- Bake pasta in preheated oven for 15-20 minutes, until bubbly. Let rest a few minutes, then serve garnished with additional torn basil leaves.
- If making ahead, allow to cool to lukewarm, then cover tightly and refrigerate. To re-warm, you can microwave in plastic wrap-covered bowls or reheat the whole skillet, covered with aluminum foil, in a 350F oven until warmed through.
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Hi! I’m Jennifer, a home cook schooled by trial and error and almost 40 years of getting dinner on the table! I love to share my favourite recipes, both old and new, together with lots of tips and tricks to hopefully help make your home cooking enjoyable, stress free, rewarding and of course, delicious!