Johnny Marzetti casserole hails from the center of a heart-shaped state on the eastern boundary of the region we call the heartland. I can’t think of anything more Midwestern.
My best friend’s family made this often when I was growing up, and they, as many Ohioans do, referred to it colloquially as “Marzetti”. Hearty with ground beef and cheesy, tomato-sauced macaroni, it feeds a crowd, and it was their go-to for countless potlucks and church suppers.
As an adult I’ve been drawn to the recipe’s history, which turns out to be fascinatingly muddled. Why is this dish, essentially a shortcut, un-fancified lasagna, named after some guy? And why has this humble casserole’s appeal endured for over a century?
Johnny Marzetti Did Not Invent Johnny Marzetti
The standard story of Johnny Marzetti casserole’s beginnings has yet to be backed up by archival evidence. And while I just can’t get enough of revisiting the topic, my own dives into online databases haven’t shed any new light on the issue.
Regardless, people eat the story up as willingly as they do the casserole itself. Here’s the gist: The Columbus, Ohio restaurant Marzetti’s was a downtown fixture for decades. Proprietress Teresa Marzetti concocted the cheap and filling pasta bake for cash-strapped students of the nearby Ohio State University and named the dish after her brother-in-law.
To date, no vintage Marzetti’s menu listing the casserole has surfaced, and the Marzetti family has never corroborated the story. If the name Marzetti rings a bell for reasons unrelated to casseroles, it’s likely because the family launched a company that makes bottled dressing in 1950; it’s still around today. However, the last Marzetti’s restaurant closed in the 70s, leaving many years for a nostalgia-laden origin myth to evolve.
A Casserole With Many Cousins
Regardless of possible associations with Marzetti’s restaurant, it’s in home kitchens and institutional dining halls where Johnny Marzetti has carved a permanent niche. Printed recipes began appearing as early as 1916, and dozens of versions link Midwestern community cookbooks like a game of connect the dots.
Close beef-and-pasta cousins of Johnny Marzetti include goulash, American chop suey, slumgullion, and Simply Recipes’ very own hamburger and macaroni. These are all primarily freeform skillet dishes; Johnny Marzetti stands out in that it’s marbled and crowned with cheese (often mild orange cheddar) and baked. This makes it less suited to throwing together on the fly, but very well suited to assembling in advance en masse. Cue the family reunion!
Johnny Marzetti Variations and Swaps
My Marzetti might not be your Marzetti, but that’s okay. It takes well to personalization as well as passionate opinions. Here are mine!
- Pasta: I contend that macaroni is the pasta for Johnny Marzetti. Egg noodles are also traditional, but macaroni creates a superior framework to hold the sauce and beef together. I suppose you could use penne, but doing so would push it from Marzetti to being Marzetti-inspired.
- Cheese: If this casserole originated in an Italian restaurant, why does it have cheddar and not mozzarella? Search me, but do give the cheddar a spin. Trust me, it works. Use orange or white, sharp or mild. Really any shredded semi-firm cheese (or a blend of a few) would be fine. I like to add a little grated parm to mine for some oomph.
- Meat: It’s nice to have a recipe option when you have ground beef on hand and that’s it. Some recipes call for Italian sausage. I’ve never had it this way, and to me it would be flirting too closely with baked ziti. I say if you want baked ziti, make baked ziti.
- Vegetables: The vegetable-averse may skip the bell pepper and/or mushrooms. I like the flavor that the mushrooms add in particular, but as a ten-year-old, I would not have agreed.
- Herbs and spices: Midwestern casseroles have a rep for being bland, but your Marzetti does not need to be. The beefy tomato sauce, however, should not be an Italian seasoning bomb. Use a light hand with the herbs and look to ground spices like chili powder or cayenne if you’d like to impart a little boldness.
How do you make your Marzetti? Tell us all about it in the comments!
More Beefy, Cheesy Casseroles
- Hamburger Casserole
- The Best Homemade Lasagna
- Beef Noodle Casserole
- Chili Mac and Cheese
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Grease a 9×13-inch baking dish; set aside.
Cook the vegetables and beef:
Heat a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms to the dry skillet. As they heat, the mushrooms will give off their moisture. Stir them occasionally until they are soft, slightly browned, and most of their liquid has evaporated, 5 to 8 minutes. Scrape the mushrooms in a bowl; set aside.
Wipe out the skillet and return it to the burner. Add the oil; when it ripples, add the onion and cook until translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and bell pepper and cook 1 minute longer. Season generously with salt.
Add the beef, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, breaking the beef up with a spoon into small clumps. Stop when the meat is no longer pink, about 8 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and seasoning:
Use your hands to crush the tomatoes directly into the pan (wear an apron) and add the remaining juices from the can.
Add the tomato paste, oregano, pepper flakes, and black pepper and simmer until saucy, about 20 minutes. Add the reserved mushrooms; simmer 2 minutes longer. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed with salt.
Meanwhile, boil the pasta:
As the sauce cooks, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta and cook until it still retains a bit of bite. Drain.
Assemble the casserole:
Return the pasta to the pot; add the cooked sauce and toss. Mix in half of the cheeses, then dump into the greased dish. Scatter the remaining grated cheese on top.
Bake until the sauce bubbles and the cheese is lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes before serving.
You can refrigerate leftovers, tightly covered, for up to 4 days. The baked casserole freezes well. You can even freeze the entire casserole to reheat later.