Easy Baked Italian Four Cheese Pasta with Penne

This baked four cheese pasta recipe is my homemade version of the popular hot pasta dish served at your favorite Italian restaurants. Also known as pasta ai quattro formaggi, this dish will sing to your savory side with a tangy and creamy cheese sauce, chewy penne pasta, and a crunchy, buttery crust.

Easy baked italian four cheese pasta with penne.

Why Four Cheese Pasta is a Dinner Favorite for the Entire Family

  • Zesty flavor: My chosen combination of cheeses, some tangy and some mild, all melt easily to make a thick and creamy cheese sauce. The subtle additions of seasonings like mustard, nutmeg, thyme, and cayenne create a flavor that is both complex and universally pleasing.
  • Ultimate comfort food: A cheesy baked pasta is the best thing to serve on a cold night when comfort food is a must. This recipe ups the comfort with the addition of a crunchy, buttery bread crumb crust, adding a rich and toasty layer of texture.
  • Feeds a crowd: This is, in fact, the perfect dish to have on hand during the holiday season, for feeding a large crowd of hungry guests, or for defrosting and reheating on nights when even pouring a bowl of cereal for dinner seems too time-consuming. 
Baked four cheese pasta with breadcrumb topping.

My Top Tips for Making Creamy, Comforting Four Cheese Pasta

  1. Use quality ingredients: This cheesy recipe features simple ingredients, so it's important to use good quality ingredients, especially with regard to the cheese. Higher quality flavors and textures will come through in the final product. The different types of cheese varietals that I've used melt easily and offer a combination of tangy and mild flavors.
  2. Take your time with the sauce: It's important to add certain sauce ingredients like milk and shredded cheese slowly--not all at once--in order to make a thick and smooth sauce. Add the milk in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly. Likewise, add the shredded cheese in small handfuls, giving the sauce a good mix in between each addition.
  3. Cook pasta correctly!: Follow the pasta's package directions to cool it al dente in about 6 quarts water. You want the pasta to be slightly underbaked and chewy, not mushy, as it will continue to bake in the oven, and you want it to hold up to the thick, delicious sauce.

Ingredients and Special Equipment

See recipe card at the bottom of this post for specific quantities.

Ingredients for pasta bake.

Ingredient Notes

  • Panko: Panko breadcrumbs are a little larger and flatter than traditional breadcrumbs, but you can use either in theis recipe. Look for them in the baking aisle of your grocery store.
  • Butter: Olive oil can replace the butter when sauteeing your onions.
  • Cheese: This recipe features four different kinds of cheeses. You can definitely lower that number and do a mix of just a few, so long as your total comes to the 6-cups indicated in my recipe. See my Variations section, below, for other cheeses that work well.
  • Penne: I think that tube-shaped penne is the best pasta for this type of recipe, as the shape holds up well against the hearty, thick sauce. That said, you can use other varietals of pasta with success. See the Variations section, below, for ideas.
  • Whole milk: Substitute 2% milk for a less rich sauce, or replace one cup of the milk with a cup of heavy cream for an even creamier result.

Special Equipment

  • Baking dishes: This recipe can be baked in one large casserole dish or in individual smaller dishes of various sizes (a crowd pleaser if you're serving these at a dinner party.)
  • Cheese grater: If you have a food processor with a cheese grating disk, that comes in handy for this recipe. You can also use a standard grating tool or buy pre-grated cheese.

Step by Step Photos and Instructions

  1. Heat oven to 375℉. Butter (or spray with olive oil spray) a 9X13-inch baking dish or a 3 quart casserole dish. If using individual oven-proof dishes, prepare them in the same way.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, toss all four of the shredded cheeses together.
  3. In a separate small bowl, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter and toss it with the breadcrumbs.
  4. Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan or a deep large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and thyme. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is softened and lightly browned, 5 minutes.

5. Add the flour to the onion and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute.

6. Add the wine and cook, stirring constantly 1-2 minutes until it is fully incorporated.

7. While stirring or whisking, slowly pour in the milk. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the mixture bubbles and thickens.

8. Stir in the Dijon, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cayenne and cook for 1 minute more while continuing to stir.

9. Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in all of the cheese mixture, one large handful at a time, stirring or whisking until smooth after each addition. Set the cheese sauce aside while the pasta cooks, and remove the sprigs of thyme.

10. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the penne and cook over medium-low heat until al dente, according to the package instructions.  Drain the cooked pasta in a colander, rinse it under cool water, and drain well.

11. Stir the drained pasta into the cheesy pasta sauce and then pour the mixture into the prepared dish (or dishes.)

12. Sprinkle the buttered breadcrumbs evenly over the top of the pasta, pressing to adhere.

13. Bake until the breadcrumbs are browned on top and the mixture is bubbling, about 30 minutes (20-25 minutes for individual dishes.) Transfer to a wire rack or a cooling rack and cool 5 minutes before serving hot.

Baked individual dish of four cheese pasta.

Variations on this Four Cheese Pasta Bake

Options to dress it up, make it your own, or keep it just the way is it!

  • Use different cheeses: Add some variation to your cheese mixture with shredded mozzarella cheese, Parmesan cheese (a.ka. Parmigiano Reggiano), Monterey Jack, Comte, Emmenthaler, or Gouda.
  • Add some protein: Mix in some sauteed cumbled Italian sausage, shredded prosciutto, or roasted shredded chicken breast.
  • Use another type of pasta: Try some bucatini (thick spaghetti), rigatoni, or the ever-popular macaroni.
  • Change the seasoning: Love galic? Add a few chopped garlic cloves to the onion mixture or a teaspoon of garlic powder to the cheese sauce. If you don't have fresh thyme, use a teaspoon of dried thyme, oregano, or Italian seasoning, instead.

Four cheese pasta with penne.

How to Serve and Store Cheesy Pasta Casseroles

How to Serve

This is a great recipe to bake in one large casserole dish or divide in individual dishes of various sizes. Smaller dishes can be served as appetizers, sides, or portions for children, while larger ones can feed even the hungriest adult. 

  • Main course: This hearty pasta can stand alone as a main course, served alongside a large bowl of spinach, Caesar, or arugula salad and some buttery garlic bread.
  • Side dish: An easy pasta recipe is a good option to bring to a potluck or barbecue and always one of the most popular choices to add to your Thanksgiving or holiday sides.

How to Store

  • Leftover baked pasta: Most cheese pasta bakes will keep for 3-4 days in the refrigerator. Cover the baking pan tightly with aluminum foil spritzed with cooking spray so that the top doesn't stick upon reheating. Or transfer smaller quantities of leftovers to an airtight container.
  • Unbaked pasta: Divide unbaked pasta into baking dishes (or one large dish), wrap tightly, and refrigerate overnight or freeze for up to two weeks.  Thaw the dishes in the refrigerator overnight and then bake as directed.
  • Fully baked dishes: You can also fully bake the dishes and then freeze them.  Thaw overnight in the refrigerator, cover with foil and reheat at 350F until warmed and bubbling.
Individual baked four cheese pasta with penne.

What To Serve With Creamy and Cozy Four Cheese Pasta:

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Easy baked four cheese pasta.

Baked Italian Four Cheese Pasta With Penne

Julie Hession
This Italian baked penne pasta features four types of cheese (Fontina, Pecorino Romano, Cheddar and Gruyere), which come together in a creamy, tangy sauce. A generous sprinkle of buttered breadcrumbs create a golden brown crisp topping after baking.
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Servings 12 people
Calories 477 kcal
5 from 2 votes
Print Recipe Pin Recipe

Equipment

  • 1 9X13 baking pan
  • 10 to 12 ounce ramekins or baking dishes (if doing individual servings)
  • Cheese grater or food processor fitted with the grating disk1

Ingredients
 
 

  • cups unseasoned panko or regular breadcrumbs
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, divided
  • cups grated Fontina cheese
  • cups grated Gruyere cheese
  • cups grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • cup dry white wine
  • 6 cups whole milk
  • 2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 pound penne pasta

Instructions
 

  • Heat oven to 375℉. Butter (or spray with olive oil spray) a 9X13-inch baking dish or a 3 quart casserole dish. If using individual oven-proof dishes, prepare them in the same way.
  • In a large mixing bowl, toss all four of the shredded cheeses together.
  • In a separate small bowl, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter and toss it with the breadcrumbs.
  • Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan or a deep large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and thyme. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is softened and lightly browned, 5 minutes.
  • Add the flour to the onion and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute.
  • Add the wine and cook, stirring constantly 1-2 minutes until it is fully incorporated.
  • While stirring or whisking, slowly pour in the milk. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the mixture bubbles and thickens.
  • Stir in the Dijon, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cayenne and cook for 1 minute more while continuing to stir.
  • Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the cheese, one handful at a time, stirring or whisking until smooth after each addition. Set the cheese sauce aside and remove the sprigs of thyme.
  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the penne and cook until al dente, according to the manufacturer's instructions.  Drain the pasta in a colander, rinse it under cool water, and drain well.
  • Stir the penne into the cheese sauce and then pour the mixture into the prepared dish (or dishes.)
  • Sprinkle the buttered breadcrumbs evenly over the top of the pasta, pressing to adhere.
  • Bake until the breadcrumbs are browned on top and the mixture is bubbling, about 30 minutes (20-25 minutes for individual dishes.) Transfer to a wire rack or a cooling rack and cool 5 minutes before serving hot.

Notes

  • Store leftover baked pasta for 3-4 days in the refrigerator. Cover the baking pan tightly with aluminum foil or plastic wrap. Transfer smaller quantities of leftovers to an airtight container.
  • Divide unbaked pasta into baking dishes (or one large dish), wrap tightly, and refrigerate overnight or freeze for up to two weeks.  Thaw the dishes in the refrigerator overnight and then bake as directed.

Nutrition

Calories: 477kcal | Carbohydrates: 36g | Protein: 22g | Fat: 28g | Saturated Fat: 16g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 1g | Monounsaturated Fat: 7g | Trans Fat: 0.3g | Cholesterol: 86mg | Sodium: 867mg | Potassium: 324mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 8g | Vitamin A: 902IU | Vitamin C: 1mg | Calcium: 522mg | Iron: 1mg
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