Johnny Marzetti Casserole

This recipe comes from a couple I met in Key West, FL back in the mid-1950's. I always thought it was something they'd cooked up themselves, and I'm sure this version was their own, however, the original recipe going under the name of Johnny Marzetti came from Columbus, Ohio 30 years before I knew anything about it.

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An Italian restaurant there named "Marzetti's" invented it in 1920, and it was probably one of the first real "casserole" dishes that we know about.

Today, there are literally dozens of different versions of this delicious Italian recipe. Every time I've ever looked up anything about it, there seems to be at least another 3-4 versions, so I have to assume that every cook makes it to suit themselves or their own family or the Restaurant Owner if they are a professional.

My friends, Red and Lois who lived at the Southern Cross Hotel when I was there, gave me their version which is still my favorite and the best I've ever tasted. You just can't make a small amount of it simply because they liked to use several types of pastas, several kinds of wonderful cheeses and olives among other things like meats. Read the recipe over then choose what you want in your own Johnny Marzetti. I don't think there is such a thing as a "right way or wrong way" to make this delicious hearty Italian main dish. It's time consuming but very easy.

Here's is Red and Lois' version of Johnny Marzetti. You may pick and choose which and how much of each ingredient you'd like to use. Red used all this and sometimes more. It would be baked in the huge professional bake pans, every ingredient carefully pre-cooked and layered until he was satisfied that everything was "just right". He worked with the same care and enthusiasm as any artist you could imagine. You might want to call in all the help you can get - not only for the work involved, but for the fun you all will have making this dish.

Ingredients:

  • 2 lb. lean ground beef (like sirloin)
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  • 2 lb. ground chuck (fat gives lots of flavor)
  • 2 lb. fresh Italian sausage (fat links)
  • 2-3 very large onions, chopped
  • 3-4 ribs celery, chopped
  • 4-5 large Italian sweet peppers, chopped
  • 6 Tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 lb. fresh button mushrooms, halved
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp. dried fennel seeds
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 2 tsp, salt (or to taste)
  • 2 tsp. Italian seasoning
  • 3 (24-28-32) oz. jars spaghetti sauce (can all be different)
  • 8 oz. elbow macaroni
  • 8 oz. thin spaghetti (broken into inch long pieces)
  • 8 oz. Ziti
  • 8 oz. small seashell macaroni
  • 12 oz. mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 16 oz. large-curd cottage cheese
  • 16 oz. ricotta cheese
  • 16 oz. extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 cup Parmesan or Romano Cheese, fresh grated if possible
  • 1/2 cup olive oil (for pastora)
  • 1/2-2/3 cup Parmesan / Romano Cheese, fresh grated if possible (for pasta)
  • 1 (12 oz.) jar Manzanita green olives - stuffed with pimento,drained)
  • 2 large cans (15 oz.) medium black olives, drained
  • 1 (8 oz.) jar pickled Italian peperoncini peppers (drained)
  • 3-4 cups seasoned Italian bread crumbs

Directions:

In a medium skillet, cook Italian sausage until it's brown, beginning to caramelize and thoroughly done. Drain on paper towel, squeezing to remove as much grease as possible and cut into bite-sized pieces. Set aside

In a very large pot, brown lean ground beef and ground chuck together. Drain all fat off and add chopped celery, Italian peppers, and onions. Add salt, pepper, Italian seasoning, fennel seeds, parsley, and garlic. Stir constantly until meat is almost done.

Add mushrooms and continue to stir until they are starting to turn dark. Lower heat, cover and allow to simmer for 5-6 minutes. Add the 3 jars spaghetti sauce, Italian sausage, green and black olives, and peperoncini. Mix all together well and cover. Keep hot.

Boil water for pastas. If you have a really large pot, you may cook them all at once by adding the ziti first, the elbow macaroni 5 minutes later, seashell pasta 2 minutes after that. and the thin spaghetti last. Allow to boil in salted water for 8-10 more minutes. Remove from heat, drain carefully, and put it all back into the large pot. I have to cook each pasta separately, then mix them together in a large plastic dishpan.

Stir in the 1/2 cup of olive oil, and the 1/2-2/3 cup of Parmesan / Romano cheese (doesn't have to be exact). Cover with foil and set aside.

In a very large mixing bowl, mix the cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, shredded cheddar, and mozzarella cheeses together as evenly as possible.

To assemble all the prepared ingredients, begin by greasing the large baking pan with olive oil. Add a thin layer of the mixed pastas. Add a layer of the meat and sauce mixture so that the pasta is covered. Add a layer of the mixed cheeses and sprinkle on Parmesan / Romano Cheese.

Repeat until you have used all the pasta, meat mixture, and cheese. You'll want to make the final layer cheese, then sprinkle evenly with bread crumbs.

Cover pan tightly with foil and bake in preheated 350 degree F oven for 1 hour. Uncover the pan and continue baking until top is lightly browned and food is all hot and bubbly. (Another 30-45 minutes depending on your oven.

Serve with green salad and loaves of crispy garlic bread or hot Italian bread baguettes.

Call in all the family, friends and neighbors. This may be the most "Italian" dish I've ever made. The aroma when it's baking is just heavenly and the flavors only get better if you should have leftovers the next day.

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Servings: 40
Time:2 Hours Preparation Time
2 Hours Cooking Time

Source: The recipe came directly to me from Red and Lois who were always the ring-leaders of our cooking adventures. Our group all lived at the Southern Cross Hotel which is still standing incidentally, right there on downtown Duval Street, Key West, FL. Although no food was prepared anymore to be sold to guests, there were a few of us who loved to cook well enough that we usually had the run of the big kitchen still being used by the owner's family. They allowed us to keep foods in the big refrigerators, cook on the professional gas stoves and of course, use the wonderful big gas ovens. We only had to clean-up after ourselves, and the family was often there to help us do that. They loved it when we cooked since the mother worked the 12-hour daytime shift at the desk, and rarely had time to cook for their three children. We all benefited greatly from their generosity and kindness.

When our bunch of "cooks" got together, almost anything was possible as we'd pool our money to buy all the ingredients and when it was all cooked most of the hotel's guests would eat with us. Although there were those like my husband and me who were "military", there were also a couple of elementary school teachers and a business manager for one of the big unions living there all year long. We also had our own private R.N. who was great about helping with sunburns, minor injuries like cuts and scrapes and upset stomachs when called upon.

You would never know Key West was the same city today as it's grown so much and there are numerous changes in culture and the large numbers of people making their year-around homes there. Many who were serving in the military back in the 50's ended up buying homes there and are now living the good life as military retirees.

We still have friends in Key West, so we know how worried they all are right now about the dreadful oil spill and what it's going to mean to our entire state and country. It's like losing a great huge chunk of American Life and History, which is exactly what is happening. There is no amount of money which can ever take the place of what we're losing personally besides the great loss of our birds and sea life. It can never ever be the same again.

By Pookarina from Boca Raton, FL

July 15, 20100 found this helpful

This sounds delicious. Did you ever make a scaled down version of this recipe? I was interested in just dividing the ingredients by four to get a smaller version. Thanks for sharing!

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July 15, 20100 found this helpful

Your recipe sounds delicious. But I loved reading your story. It sounds book-worthy. A very interesting and unique situation, reminded me of the movie Key Largo. Thanks so much for sharing. I'll certainly check out the Southern Cross, if I'm ever in that locale.

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July 15, 20100 found this helpful

My mother made Johnny Marzetti. I have the original recipe in her handwriting and it is so old it is falling apart, has to be at least 75 - 80 years old. She didn't use all of the extra "stuff". Just thin spaghetti, tomato sauce, ground meat, onions, and cheeses. But you are right - the aroma is scrumptious! We loved it when we were all at home. Think I'll make some today. My mouth is watering!

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July 16, 20100 found this helpful

My Goodness! I don't think I've ever seen a recipe with so many ingredients in it before but when I read it over and really started paying attention, I realized that much of it is just plain old kitchen staple items. Things I have in my cabinets and can cupboard all the time. The main thing is how much fun it sounds like it would be to make if you were having a really big party. Our whole family absolutely loves Italian food too, so it would be a party just to get together and make this. Everyone could chip in for the ingredients and it would be such a pleasure to sit down with nice hot crusty Italian bread and a big green salad and spend an afternoon and evening just making and eating. Anyway, you made it sound like fun Pookarina, and I'll bet it was too. I've always wanted to see Key West, and now, I'm going to put it on my list of things I MUST do. I'd love to take a stroll through that Southern Cross Hotel and see the big kitchen, and just savor the atmosphere. If I ever get there, I'll think of you.

Thank you so much for sharing that great story and the fantastic recipe.

MisMachado

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July 16, 20100 found this helpful

Hi Mkymlp,

Everyone I've heard about almost has come up with scaled down versions of Johnny Marzetti. I really can't even tell you that Red and Lois's version is "the original recipe" as no one seems to know what that was. I suspect, since it came from an Italian Restaurant and supposedly made or invented by the owner for his brother that it could have been an old Italian family recipe with just about everything tossed in that went together.

I think if you had a couple types of pasta, some good spaghetti meat sauce, meatballs maybe and/or Italian sausage, along with ricotta cheese, green Manzanita olives, Parmesan /Romano cheese, you could come up with a casserole that anyone would enjoy. I've been talking about this recipe so much lately that I'm hungry for any version of it anytime now. :-)

You might want to add cottage cheese to the ricotta as well if you want more of that type of soft nice cheese. I know I would.

Thank you for the lovely feedback too. It's a pleasure to share these stories and recipes with TF

Readers. I learn a lot here too.

Pookarina / Julia

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July 17, 20100 found this helpful

Just thought I'd let you know that when I told my husband I'd found a recipe for Johnny Marzetti that sounded like what his mother made he told me that if I'd make it, he'd marry me all over again..

If will take us 6 months to eat it all unless I call in the calvary, but I'm sure going to try. It has to be the best sounding recipe for that famous Italian dish that I've ever run across. Thank you so much.

I still can't believe it. Also loved the story about Key West and wish we could have been there too.

ww

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July 17, 20100 found this helpful

This sounds so good that whoever cooks it first hopefully will give me a call. I'll be there as soon as possible. I'll even bring the salad. LOL.

This is a serious recipe, that's for sure, and like someone else said, I would have loved to be there cooking and eating with you all.

Thank you for sharing with us Pookarina.

Lee

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