Pesto Pasta Bake is a bright summer recipe that is easy to make! Combining homemade pesto with pasta, tomatoes and bocconcini then topped with a double cheese layer, it is oven baked to perfection. This pesto pasta bake recipe is vegetarian, perfect for meatless Monday's or versatile to pair with meaty mains.
🤍 Recipe Highlights
I have summarised everything that you will come to know and love (LOVE ❤) about the recipe in the points below:
- Versatile: this is a recipe that works as a main or a side dish. Choose to serve it on its own or paired with protein for a well balanced meal.
- Family friendly: the whole family will love the cheesy nature of this dish. It has great flavour but none which are spicy or hot as to deter little ones from digging in!
- Budget friendly: this is a reasonably cost effective recipe. There is no meat which significantly cuts the cost and you can purchase home brand pasta which is super cheap. The cheese will be the most expensive ingredients needed for the recipe and you are able to purchase smaller sized blocks to cut costs.
- Creamy pesto pasta: yet there is no cream needed in the recipe. The juicy pesto sauce and cheese with melted cheese layers provide a creamy cheesy texture to the dish.
The photo below is to show you everything you need to make the recipe. Please refer to the printable recipe card for specific ingredient measurements as well as detailed instructions.
As you can see the recipe calls for:
- Penne pasta: a great tubular pasta that you can always get your hands on at the supermarket. This is a great choice for the recipe as it allows the pesto sauce to flow into the open pasta.
- Basil: fresh, vibrant and aromatic this is a great herb to get used to in the kitchen. We trim the leaves from the stems and discard any that have brown or dark spots. Keep a few of the leaves aside also for garnish.
- Pecorini romano (pesto): made from sheep's milk is excellent for the pesto.
- Pistachio nuts: offer a robust nut to provide taste and texture to the pesto.
- Garlic: fresh garlic cloves or minced garlic will both work for the recipe.
- Olive oil: helps to bind the pesto ingredients together.
- Lemon juice: adds freshness, citrus tang and a bright flavour to the pesto pasta.
- Tomatoes: a colourful bunch of heirloom, grape or cherry tomatoes offer pops of colour. I slice the larger ones in halves and keep the smaller ones whole.
- Mozzarella cheese: we grate this into a layer on top of the pasta which melts to perfection in the oven.
- Pecorino romano: then we grate a layer of this over the top of the mozzarella for the flavour.
- Cherry bocconcini: drained, not rinsed. These melt in the oven and help to keep the pasta bake moist and juicy.
Tasty Tip: I like to offer a number of substitutions and variations to give you options when making the recipe. If in doubt of any of the above ingredients, or wanting alternatives, read this section before diving into the instructions on how to make the recipe below 👍😉.
Here are the step by step instructions to make the recipe. We start by using the food processor to make the basil and pistachio pesto.
- Add basil leaves (Photo 1)
- Then add pistachio nuts (Photo 2)
- Add garlic cloves (Photo 3)
- Then add pecorino romano cheese (Photo 4)
👩🍳 How to Make Pesto Pasta Bake
Add the basil leaves to the food processor then layer in the pistacho nuts, garlic and cheese. Blitz for 5 to 10 seconds to combine then use a spatula to scrape down the insides of the bowl, keeping the pesto low near the blade.
Next pour in the olive oil and blitz again.
Then remove and the lid and use a teaspoon to taste the pesto. Pour in half of the lemon juice, blitz to combine then pour in the rest as needed. Blitz to combine then use a spatula to transfer the pesto paste to a small bowl.
- Add the olive oil (Photo 5)
- Then add the lemon juice (Photo 6)
- Transfer pesto to small bowl (Photo 7)
- Scoop out pasta water (Photo 8)
Read and follow the instructions on the pasta packet to cook it in a medium saucepan of boiling salted water.
Moments before it is al dente (still a little bit chewy) use a heatproof jug to scoop out 1 to 2 cups of water.
Then use a colander to drain the pasta and discard the rest of the water.
- Add pasta and pesto (Photo 9)
- Pour in pasta water (Photo 10)
- Toss to combine (Photo 11)
- Add cherry bocconcini (Photo 12)
Next add the cooked pasta to a large sauté pan (or bowl big enough to combine). Add in the pesto and pasta water then use a wooden spoon to toss to combine.
Next add the cherry bocconcini, followed by the sliced and whole small tomatoes.
- Add sliced tomatoes (Photo 13)
- Toss to combine (Photo 14)
- Transfer into baking dish (Photo 15)
- Grate layer of each cheese over the top (Photo 16)
Once you have added the tomatoes, gently toss to combine the dish.
Then transfer it into an oiled baking dish.
Grate a layer of each cheese over the top, then pop it into the oven on the middle shelf.
It will take around 10 minutes for the cheese to melt and some bits turn a lovely golden brown ( 😍🥰 yum!!).
- Bake for 10 minutes until the cheese melts (Photo 17)
Once you have removed the baking dish from the oven, you can allow it to rest for a couple of minutes and then get ready to garnish and serve!
You won't need more cheese (said I rarely ever 😂) yet you can sprinkle some cracked black pepper over the top, add some basil leaves and a large serving spoon and the dish is done!
🍽 Serving Suggestions
This is a hearty vegetarian recipe that you might find enough on its own. Or you might like to serve it alongside the Italian Herb Chicken Thighs.
👍 How to Guide
How to Store
Store leftovers of the pesto pasta bake in sealed airtight containers in the fridge. They can be refrigerated for 3 days and can be consumed hot or cold.
How to Freeze
Allow the dish to fully cool. Then portion into air tight containers or zip lock bags, squeeze the air out then seal. Frozen portions of the dish can be kept in the freezer for 3 months.
How to Reheat
Allow frozen portions to fully thaw in the fridge overnight or on the bench during the day before reheating. Reheat in the microwave (fastest) covered for 3 to 4 minutes. Or you can add the leftovers back to a pan on the stove with additional reserved pasta water or a few drops of olive oil, turn to medium heat and stir till the pasta is heated through.
😉 Substitutions and Variations
Here are my sub ins and outs that you might be thinking about as you read the post and I will tell you if I think they will work or why they won't:
- Yes, you can add salmon or tuna for a salmon pesto pasta bake or tuna pesto pasta bake.
- Or chicken for a chicken pesto mozzarella pasta bake.
- Use fusilli instead of penne for a fusilli pasta bake.
- Macaroni, rigatoni or bow tie pasta are alternatives you can use or you favorite pasta. (This includes the option to use gluten free pasta).
- You can use cashews, pine nuts or walnuts for the pesto to the equivalent amount.
- Parmesan cheese can be use (equivalent amount) in place of the pecorino as well as the layer grated over the top of the mozzarella cheese.
- You can purchase shredded mozzarella cheese or grate it yourself (my preference), but I get that there can be 2 schools of thought and less time so you do you on this point!
💡 Tasty Tips
Here are my top tips and tricks that I want to share with you so that you master the recipe from the get go:
- To prepare the tomatoes, slice the larger ones in half, but keep some of the smaller ones whole. These literally burst with flavour and juices after they have been oven baked.
- When cooking the pasta, aim for al dente (a little bit chewy) as it will soften in the oven also.
- Give the baking dish a good spray with olive oil as this will reduce sticking and also help the clean up process at the the end.
- If you want to use less cheese on top of the pasta bake, you can use some bread crumbs in place of some of the cheese. These will toast to a lovely golden brown when cooked.
🤓 Frequently Asked Questions
Why add pasta water to pesto?
Adding the reserved pasta water to the pesto helps to create a sauce which binds the pasta, pesto and water.
Do you add pesto before or after?
You add the pesto to the pasta after the pasta is cooked with no heat from the stove needed. The heat from the cooked pasta as well as the starchy pasta water is enough to allow the pesto and pasta to combine together.
Should pesto be smooth or chunky?
Pesto should be a little bit chunky with visible texture from the nuts. It should not be a smooth paste. Achieve this by not over blending the pesto in the food processor, instead pulsing till it is simply consistently combined.
😍 More Easy Dinner Recipes
Look forward to dinner every night with some recipes up your sleeve that you know will deliver taste, texture and pure yum. With a variety of cook times and an array of effort needed these recipes give you options to turn to:
- Penne Bolognese
- Pesto Rigatoni
- Sticky Pork Ribs
- Greek Lamb Chops
- Meatball Bolognese
- Greek Lamb Shanks
- Baked Meatball Subs
- Tagliatelle Alla Bolognese
- Pork Osso Bucco
- Beef Osso Bucco
Pesto Pasta Bake
- 1 Food processor to make the pesto
- 1 Spatula
- 1 Teaspoon
- 1 Small bowl
- 1 Medium sauce pan to cook the pasta
- 1 Heatproof jug to scoop out the pasta water
- 1 Colander to drain the pasta
- 1 Large baking dish to bake the pesto pasta
- 1 olive oil spray
- 1 Wooden spoon to toss and combine
- 3 cups basil leaves only, stems trimmed
- ½ cup pistachio nuts
- ½ cup pecorino romano cheese
- 2-3 cloves garlic
- ⅓ cup/80 ml olive oil
- 2 tablespoons/40 ml lemon juice
- 500 grams/16 oz penne pasta
- ½ cup/125 ml reserved pasta water Note 1
- 220 grams/7 oz mini bocconcini balls drained, not rinsed
- 2 cups medley tomatoes slice the large ones, leave the small ones whole
- ⅓ cup mozzarella cheese Note 2
- ⅓ cup pecorino romano cheese also Note 2
- fresh basil leaves
- black pepper
- Basil pesto: make the pesto by combining the basil leaves, pistachio nuts, garlic and pecorino romano in a food processor. Blitz for around 10 seconds to combine. Pour in the olive oil, blitz again then use a spatula to scrape down the insides of the bowl keeping the pesto down low. Use a teaspoon to taste the pesto, then add half of the lemon juice. Blitz then taste again then add the remaining lemon juice as desired.
- Pasta: read and follow the instructions on the packet of pasta to cook it in a medium sauce pan of boiling salted water. Moments before it is al dente (a bit chewy still) use a heatproof jug to scoop out 1 to 2 cups of pasta water. Then use a colander to drain the remaining water and discard.
- Combine: use a large sauté pan or bowl to combine the cooked pasta, pesto and ½ cup of reserved pasta water. Use a wooden spoon to toss and combine. Then add the sliced tomatoes and bocconcini balls to the pan. Stir again to combine.
- Cheese: grate a layer of mozzarella cheese over the top of the dish then follow this by grating a layer of pecorino romano on top. Then place the dish into the preheated oven on the middle shelf for 10 minutes until the cheese melts to a lovely golden brown.
- Garnish: once the cheese has melted, you can use oven mits to remove the baking dish from the oven and set it on a wire rack. Garnish with cracked black pepper and basil leaves. Provide forks and spoons for serving.
- Note 1 - Reserved pasta water: I refer to taking out 1 to 2 cups of starchy pasta water before draining the penne. However, we only add ½ cup of this (125 ml) to the pasta and pesto. Leftovers can be handy to store in a jar in the fridge in a sealed, air tight container and used to juice up reheated portions.
- Note 2 - Mozzarella and pecorino romano cheeses: if you are using blocks of these, don't worry about measuring to the exact amount I indicate, simply grate then sprinkle a layer of mozzarella over the top then repeat the same for the pecorino romano cheese.