This pasta. This is last-meal kind of pasta. This is the kind of pasta you eat when you don’t just want any old variety of carbs and cheese — you want grown-up, legit, every-bite-is-a-flavor-explosion kind of pasta. This is it.
I happened upon this recipe for creamy rigatoni with sausage and fennel (oooo, even sounds fancy) about a month or so ago when I was tired of our run-of-the-mill spaghetti night. Don’t get me wrong — homegirl loves her classic old school marinara sauce and long noodles that wrap around a fork combo, with an extra sprinkling or five of grated Parmesan. I’m not above it. But sometimes it just doesn’t hit the pasta spot.
This pasta? With its creamy tomato sauce that hugs every bite of al dente rigatoni paired with sweet Italian sausage and hints of crunchy veg all topped with a waterfall of fresh-grated salty Parmesan cheese and fresh parsley? THIS pasta hits every spot, and then some.
The first time I made this pasta, I made it just for me and my husband, and there were no leftovers. The second time I made this pasta, I made it for my dinner club, and we finished the meal eating the pasta remnants straight out of the serving bowl with a fork — no leftovers. The third time I made this pasta, I had a small bowl of it for lunch and left the rest of it for my husband for dinner as I was going out with friends that night, and when I came home? No leftovers. So, there are two points to glean from this: One, that if you intend to have leftovers of this pasta, you’d better make a double batch. And two, that my husband is a liar when he says he wants his last meal to be McDonald’s sausage burritos and frozen pizzas — it’s clear that this pasta is what he’d really want.
A few notes to mention about this dish: One, it’s a recipe adapted from queen Ina Garten, so you know it’s good. Two, the recipe calls for fresh fennel bulb but every single time I’ve made it, I swapped the fennel for celery (because that’s all that was available at my grocery store and I was too lazy to go fennel hunting around town) and have never felt it lacking in anything, as the celery delivers the same level of crunch and spring-like taste, leaving the fennel seeds and Italian sausage to bring in the truer fennel-y flavors. Three, you can make it ahead of time! Just put it in an oven-safe dish, sprinkle the top with Parmesan cheese, cover and refrigerate for up to a day/overnight. Uncover and heat in the oven at 375 degrees F for 20 minutes or so, and dinner is served.
Four, don’t feel bad about eating this straight out of the serving bowl with a fork, as you won’t have been the first. And likely not the last. No need to waste your time transferring food to your plate when the pasta — THIS pasta — is this good.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 cups chopped fresh fennel or celery
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped (about 1½ cups)
- 1 lb bulk mild Italian sausage
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds, crushed or chopped
- ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 cup heavy cream
- ⅔ cup half-and-half
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 lb rigatoni pasta
- ½ cup chopped fresh parsley, divided
- 1 cup fresh-grated Parmesan cheese, divided
- In large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, heat oil. Add fennel and onion and cook, stirring often, 7 to 9 minutes until soft. Add sausage; cook 7 to 9 minutes, crumbling as you cook, until sausage is cooked through and browned. Add garlic, crushed fennel seeds, red pepper flakes, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Cook for 1 minute, then pour in white wine. Bring to boil. Add heavy cream, half-and-half and tomato paste. Return to boil, then reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens.
- Meanwhile, bring large pot of water to boil. Add 2 tablespoons salt to boiling water, then add rigatoni pasta. Cook according to package directions. Drain and add to sauce; stir to coat pasta.
- Off heat, stir in ¼ cup parsley and ½ cup Parmesan cheese. Serve topped with remaining parsley and Parmesan cheese.