Baked pasta dishes take a little longer to assemble but the payoff is a made-ahead casserole, perfect for holiday gatherings. This recipe adapts well: You can choose hot or sweet fennel-flavored sausage, mellow black olives or tart green ones, fresh mozzarella or the ordinary supermarket kind. When you're ready to bake: The secret to crisping the top without drying out the filling is a high temperature.
Wine recommendations: Montesole 2001 Sannio Aglianico, is smooth but full-bodied. This lightly oaked 100% Aglianico wine stands up to robust flavors. The Tormaresca 2001 Rosso is an international-style Antinori blend from Puglia that brings enticing berry and spice aromas, medium body and pleasant acidity to the table.
1 pound hot or sweet Italian sausage links
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium eggplant, halved lengthwise and cut in 1/2-inch rounds
Kosher or sea salt
2 small, lightly crushed garlic cloves
1 can (35-ounce) whole plum tomatoes in their juices
1/2 cup flavorful pitted black or green olives, slivered
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound rigatoni
1-1/2 cups coarsely grated mozzarella
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 400°F. In a broiler pan, cook the sausages until browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Cool on paper toweling and angle cut in 1/2-inch slices. Blot the eggplant with paper towels. Heat 1/4 cup oil over medium heat in a skillet (or two) large enough to hold all the eggplant in a single layer. Fry the slices, turning once, until browned and tender. Transfer to paper toweling and sprinkle lightly with salt.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook the garlic until golden; remove and discard. Add the tomatoes and their juices crushing the tomatoes with your finger. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt. Simmer briskly until fairly dense, about 10 minutes. Add the olives and black pepper to taste. Meanwhile, bring 6 quarts cold water and 2 tablespoons salt to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the rigatoni, stir well and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta and return to the saucepan; mix in the tomato sauce.
To assemble: Spoon half of the sauced pasta into an oiled baking dish (about 8" x 12"). Arrange the sausage and eggplant slices on top. Sprinkle with the mozzarella and half of the pecorino. Spoon the remaining pasta on top. Combine the remaining Pecorino with the bread crumbs and sprinkle evenly over the top. Cover the with aluminum foil. (At this point, the dish can be held an hour or two at room temperature or, refrigerated, up to 12 hours.)
To bake: Preheat the oven to 425Â°F. Bake the pasta until heated through, about 15 minutes. Remove the foil and cook until the topping is lightly browned, about 5 minutes.