Nonna Pierina was, among many things, a very good cook.
Pierina was was born in 1922 into a poor, farming family in Piglio, a small village in the Apennine mountains about 50 kilometers east of Rome.
She married Nonno Mario in 1943, wearing a simple dress and home-made shoes constructed of cardboard, which unfortunately did not hold together in the rain that fell. World War II arrived a few years later and Nonno Mario was often away, having joined other pro-Ally partigiani, partisan fighters in the Italian Resistance Movement opposed to the occupying German forces and the Italian Fascist regime.
During that period of hardship, when food was scarce and medicine was simply unavailable, Nonna Pierina lost her first two children during their infancy. Later, she was blessed with the birth of two daughters, Stefano’s mother Maria, and his aunt Ivana. In the early 1960s, when Maria was nearly a teenager, Pierina and Mario moved to the outskirts of Rome, and began life in the city.
All along, Nonna Pierina cooked. Her style was simple and rustic. She made homemade fettuccine and gnocchi and dressed the with a simple ragù, or a with a sauce made with the wild fowl and game that Mario hunted. She knew how to identify edible forest mushrooms and made sauce with those, too. She knew all of the field greens native to her birthplace, like cicoria, cime di rape, ramoracce, and others that would require a field guide to identify and translate, and could cook them up like none other. Later, when she and Mario bought a small plot of land in the pianura pontina, reclaimed marshlands about a kilometer away from the Mediterranean Sea south of Rome, she gathered snails and cooked them in a savory sauce.
On special occasions, Nonna Pierina prepared pasta al forno. There are tens of hundreds of baked pasta recipes across Italy, but hers was special. She always used rigatoni, enriched her meat sauce with peas, and added pieces of hard boiled egg and prosciutto cotto (ham) along with the usual mozzarella and parmigiano. It was always baked perfectly, with a crisp and chewy top.
For the sauce
Two 28 0z. cans of whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1 and 1/2 lbs. ground beef
1 medium carrot
1 celery stalk
1/2 of a medium yellow onion
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 bag frozen peas, 1 lb or 500 g
Salt to taste
Rigatoni, one box
Deli ham, approximately 1/2 lb, or 250 grams
4 hard-boiled eggs
2 ovoline of fresh mozzarella, in water (one tub)
1 cup grated Parmigiano*
A large baking dish
*Buy a wedge of real Parmigiano Reggiano, and grate it finely. Alternatively, you can use pre-grated Parmigiano Reggiano, sometimes sold in tubs. Bags of Parmesan sold in supermarkets are typically not authentic Parmigiano Reggiano, and please no green Kraft shaker parmesan!
Prepare the sauce
Chop the carrot, celery and onion and put them in a saucepan along with the olive oil. Sauté over medium heat for 3-4 minutes until the onion becomes translucent. Add the ground beef, along with salt to taste. Allow the ground beef to brown slowly, stirring frequently so that the beef crumbles and cooks finely. Add the tomatoes, preferably passing them through a food mill to produce a smooth sauce. Bring to a simmer, and then add the white wine. Cook uncovered for 45 minutes or more at a low simmer, stirring occasionally. If the sauce should thicken too much, a small amount of water can be added. When done, remove from heat, allow to cool slightly. While still warm, taste for salt and add if needed. Set aside.
Prepare the cheeses, egg and ham
While the sauce is cooking, drain the mozzarella and cut it into small pieces, place it into a bowl and set it aside. If your parmigiano is not grated, do so now and set aside. Cut the hard boiled egg into small pieces, place the egg into a bowl, and set aside. Do the same for the ham.
Cook the rigatoni
Bring a large pot of water to boil, toss in a handful of salt, and cook the pasta for slightly more than half of the cooking time specified for al dente on the box. Drain the pasta well, then return it to the pot. Stir in a few ladles of sauce, to keep it from sticking.
Assemble and Bake
Arrange your workspace so that the sauce, pasta, cheeses, egg and ham are within easy reach of your baking pan. Preheat the oven to 180° C, or 350° F. Using a ladle, spoon a shallow layer of sauce at the bottom of the pan. Add a layer of rigatoni, and cover again with sauce. Add 1/3 of the egg, ham, mozzarella and parmigiano. Add another layer of rigatoni, cover again with sauce, and then again add another 1/3 of the egg, ham, mozzarella and parmigiano. Repeat for one final layer.
Bake for approximately 25 to 30 minutes, until the cheeses on top are brown and the rigatoni on top is crispy. Allow the pasta al forno to sit for 15 minutes before serving. If you prefer, the assembled pasta al forno can be frozen unbaked. Allow it to thaw before baking.
Tip: use a kitchen scissors to cut through the top layer of cheese and pasta, and then use a spatula or a knife to cut through to the bottom or the pan.