Behind the Recipes

Pastitsio: The Most Impressive Baked Pasta

A triple-decker composition of tubular pasta, spiced meat sauce, and lush béchamel, Greek pastitsio is king among casseroles—and often a royal pain.

Published Oct. 1, 2019.

My Goals & Discoveries

Savory, spiced meat sauce

Treating ground beef with baking soda helps it stay moist. Cinnamon, oregano, dried mint, and paprika make its flavor distinctly Greek. Red wine plus lots of tomato paste add brightness and savoriness.

Neat rows of noodles

Parcooking ziti (the closest substitute for Greek macaroni) before assembling and baking ensures that the pasta cooks through in the oven and holds its shape enough to sit in stacked formation.

Creamy cover

We use a portion of the béchamel to bind the ziti and then thicken the rest of it by whisking in cheese and an egg until it’s spreadable. Sprinkling more cheese over the top encourages the surface to brown.

Streamlined method

Parcooking the pasta in the hot béchamel hydrates it just enough to ensure that it will be fully cooked after baking. At the same time, the pasta leaches starches that help thicken the béchamel.


Pastitsio is culinary pastiche in the most literal sense. It’s a Greek meat and macaroni casserole inspired by similar Italian compositions such as baked ziti and lasagna (pasticcio, the root of both “pastitsio” and “pastiche,” is an old Italian term for a pie containing meat and pasta); the seasonings are Hellenic; and it’s lavished with French béchamel. The dish is an alloy of language and cuisine.

What makes pastitsio stand out from its Italian analogues is most obvious when you look at a slice of it: Instead of being jumbled together or loosely stacked, the casserole’s components are impressively stratified. The base layer typically features rows of wide-bore tubular pasta held together with a thin mortar of cheese and béchamel. Above that sits a band of tightly bound, robustly spiced ground meat and tomato sauce. Topping it all off is a plush blanket of cheesy béchamel. A well-constructed version holds together so that in each forkful, the layers remain separate but are experienced together.

It’s classic comfort fare and one of my favorite things to order at a Greek diner—the type of dish you find at the center of many Greek family meals. But since there’s no hiding gluey or mushy noodles, dull or dry meat sauce, or grainy béchamel, the best versions take time and care to make. Streamlining the whole package without sacrificing its character was my goal, so I took on the challenge layer by layer.

Neat Rows of Noodles

A layer of neatly aligned tubular pasta bound by creamy, cheesy béchamel sauce is a hallmark of pastitsio; each slice should look like it contains rows of stacked pipes. Traditional recipes call for “number 2” macaroni: long tubes that look like wide bucatini (in prominent Greek brands, the “2” refers to this shape of noodle). I found that ziti, the most widely available match in terms of diameter, was actually easier to work with; the stubby Italian tubes fell into parallel orientation with almost no effort.

Senior editor Andrew Janjigian prepares for a five recipe test of a pastitsio, a Greek baked pasta dish.

Parcooking the pasta to just shy of al dente before assembling and baking was key. Cooked any less, the pasta tasted raw, while fully soft pasta collapsed and ruined the “stacked pipes” visual and pleasing texture.

Distinct layers of noodles, meat sauce, and bechamel—a hallmark feature of pastitsio—can be seen through the baking dish as the casserole cools.

A Cheesy Cover

In many cuisines, béchamel—the classic white sauce made by thickening milk with a roux—is a background component with a subtle presence. It holds together the layers in lasagna, anchors the ham and Gruyère in a croque monsieur, and binds up the elbows in macaroni and cheese. But in pastitsio, béchamel gets its chance in the spotlight. It’s typically thickened with cheese and sometimes egg and spread over the casserole into a distinct layer that bakes up custardy and browns deeply. (A portion of it also binds up the pasta layer.)

The Sauce Cooks the Pasta, the Pasta Cooks the Sauce

Most pastitsio recipes call for parcooking the pasta; tossing it with a portion of the béchamel; and thickening the remaining béchamel with enough roux to make it spreadable, not runny. But when I realized that the pasta could cook in the béchamel, and that its starch could thicken the sauce, I combined these steps to make the process more efficient.


Hot Béchamel Hydrates Pasta

Briefly simmering and then steeping the ziti in the béchamel hydrates its starch just enough to ensure that it will be fully cooked after baking.


Pasta Starch Thickens Béchamel

As the pasta softens, it leaches starch that thickens the béchamel (without it, the béchamel would require twice as much roux to thicken up appropriately).

I thickened the béchamel in two stages: First, I used it to parcook the pasta, which leached starch that tightened up the sauce just enough to hold the ziti together (see “The Sauce Cooks the Pasta, the Pasta Cooks the Sauce”). Then I strained out the pasta and thickened the sauce further by whisking in cheese and an egg. Now the sauce was spreadable. A sprinkling of more cheese over the top encouraged the surface to brown.

Kasseri Cheese

Kasseri is a Greek cheese that’s increasingly available in U.S. supermarkets. It’s semifirm, stretchy, and salty like Italian provolone but richer because it’s made from sheep’s (or sometimes a combination of sheep’s and goat’s) milk, which is fattier than cow’s milk. It’s the traditional choice for Greek baked casseroles such as pastitsio and moussaka, but if you can’t find it, a 2:1 ratio of provolone to Pecorino Romano will approximate its flavor and elasticity.

Savory, Spiced Meat Sauce

The most obvious difference between the meat sauce in pastitsio and a version you might find in an Italian pasta dish is the seasoning. Cinnamon and oregano are traditional flavors, and dried mint and paprika further distance it from anything in the Italian canon.  

Use Beef, Not Lamb

Despite its prominence in Greek cuisine, lamb is not the traditional choice in pastitsio—beef is. Because beef is labeled with its fat content and lamb is not, using beef also helps ensure that the dish won’t be too lean or too greasy.

The sauce should be tight and concentrated and the ground beef tender—both reasons why most recipes call for a long, slow simmer. But I found a faster way to achieve both goals. Briefly treating 93 percent lean ground beef (which has enough fat to stay supple without making the sauce greasy) with baking soda before cooking altered the meat’s chemistry so that it was better able to hold on to moisture, and skipping the usual browning step avoided toughening its exterior. I had tender meat in about half the original time.

Minimizing the amount of liquid also expedited cooking. One-quarter cup of red wine added brightness, and instead of reducing tomato sauce, I thinned out ultraconcentrated tomato paste with just enough water to make the finished sauce appropriately fluid.


A triple-decker composition of tubular pasta, spiced meat sauce, and lush béchamel, Greek pastitsio is king among casseroles—and often a royal pain.
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