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This baked pasta dish is the Greek version of lasagna — but way better. I learned how to make my dad’s recipe, and it’s perfect for leftovers.

Summary List PlacementI've been doing cooking projects since the pandemic began, and the person behind the camera has often been my dad. I moved back home for two months while most of the US was in lockdown last summer, and my dad became my de facto sous chef as I turned our kitchen into my new office.  We made a variety of delicious dishes, whipping up everything from Gordon Ramsay's tagliatelle with sausage bolognese to a Michelin-starred chef's spaghetti alla carbonara. One morning we even spent hours trying to make eggs in an espresso machine a la Martha Stewart.  But this story isn't...

Plate of pastitio with feta cheese

Summary List Placement

I’ve been doing cooking projects since the pandemic began, and the person behind the camera has often been my dad.

I moved back home for two months while most of the US was in lockdown last summer, and my dad became my de facto sous chef as I turned our kitchen into my new office. 

We made a variety of delicious dishes, whipping up everything from Gordon Ramsay’s tagliatelle with sausage bolognese to a Michelin-starred chef’s spaghetti alla carbonara. One morning we even spent hours trying to make eggs in an espresso machine a la Martha Stewart

But this story isn’t about celebrity chefs. This time I turned the camera around, because the person behind my favorite pasta dish just happens to be my dad. 

When it comes to pasta, the dish that I always look forward to most when I visit home is a Greek classic called pastitsio.

Pastitsio (pronounced pa-stie-chio) is a baked pasta dish with ground meat and béchamel sauce. It’s creamier than a baked ziti and meatier than your classic lasagna. But overall, it’s just extremely comforting — and almost impossible to eat just one serving. 

I’ve been eating pastitsio since before I can remember, but it wasn’t until I left California that I realized how much I would miss my parents’ Greek cooking. There were many cold New York nights that I dreamed of a heaping plate of pastitsio as my radiator banged on and on in my tiny East Village apartment. 

So after many years of lusting for my favorite homemade pasta dish, I finally asked my dad to teach me how to make his famous pastitsio.

And, lucky for you, I convinced him to share the recipe too.

Pastitsio is made with a handful of ingredients that you probably already have in your pantry and fridge.

To make a pan of pastitsio for the family, you’ll need: 

  • 1 box of penne pasta 
  • 1 pound of ground beef
  • 1 egg 
  • ½ jar of marinara sauce (in the words of Ina Garten, “store-bought is fine!”) 
  • ½ stick of butter 
  • ½ an onion 
  • Parsley 

Unlike lasagna, pastitsio is a dish that doesn’t require much prep.

Before I got cooking, all I needed to do was roughly chop the onion and parsley.

I also got my pan for the pastitsio ready in advance.

I brushed the entire glass baking dish with olive oil, which my dad said helps keep the pasta from sticking to the edges once it comes out of the oven. 

Then it was time to get the noodles and onions cooking.

After bringing a big pot of salted water to a boil, I threw in the box of penne pasta. 

Then I added my chopped onions to a pan with some olive oil over medium heat.

Once the onions had browned, I threw in my parsley and ground beef.

Per my dad’s instructions, I salted the beef and then used a rubber spatula to break up the meat. 

“Let it brown and mix everything together,” he told me. “Keep stirring until it’s fully cooked, which takes around five minutes.” 

After the meat had browned, I cracked my egg right on top.

I stirred everything together until the egg was fully cooked and had mixed with the ground beef. 

My dad says this step is optional, but he swears it makes the pastitsio even fluffier and tastier.

Then I poured half a jar of marinara sauce into the mix.

My dad said you can also use tomato sauce for this recipe, but he believes marinara sauce is easier “and also just tastes better.” 

I mixed everything together and let the marinara sauce cook with the ground beef for a few minutes.

“This allows for better absorption of the flavors,” my dad told me. 

After a few minutes passed, the sauce looked nice and thick. I took it off the heat and turned my attention to the pasta. 

Once the penne was al dente, I drained my pasta.

My dad recommends adding some cold water to the pot while draining the pasta to help stop the cooking process. 

Then it was time for one of my dad’s special tricks — throwing the pasta back into the pot with a few knobs of butter.

The pot, which is off the heat, should still be warm enough to melt the butter. 

“Butter is always good,” my dad told me mischievously as he mixed the penne. “It makes the pasta nicer. Everything goes with butter.”

It was time to start building the pastitsio.

First, we covered the bottom of the baking dish with a layer of the cooked penne (using about half of the pasta). 

My dad told me that, in Greece, pastitsio is traditionally made with bucatini. But once he started making it in the US, he preferred using penne instead. 

“Penne just fits so easily into the pan,” he said. “I find this works better.” 

Then we added all of the ground beef mixture.

We used the entire pan of ground beef for the second layer of the pastitsio.

We added the rest of the penne on top before starting the béchamel sauce.

My dad always makes the béchamel sauce right before putting the pastitsio in the oven, which he says makes it a lot easier to spread over the penne. 

My dad’s béchamel sauce only requires a few simple ingredients.

You’ll just need: 

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups of milk (my dad always uses 2%, but any kind works) 
  • 1 stick of butter 
  • ¼ cup of flour 

First I cracked the two eggs into a small bowl.

I slightly beat them with a fork and set them aside, per my dad’s instructions.

Then, in a small saucepan, I melted the stick of butter.

My dad wasn’t lying when he said this recipe has plenty of butter.

Then I threw in the flour and milk.

My dad said it’s important to slowly add the two cups of milk while simultaneously mixing the sauce over medium-high heat. 

My dad got behind the stove to show me how to properly mix the béchamel.

The key is to slowly add the beaten eggs once the sauce starts thickening. 

“You just have to feel it,” he told me sagely. 

And make sure you keep stirring, or the sauce will stick to the bottom of the pan. 

My dad continued mixing the sauce until it came to a boil.

The second you see those first few bubbles, take it off the stove, he told me. 

It should take, at most, around five minutes total. 

Once the sauce was ready, my dad poured it right on top of that second layer of pasta.

It was time to get baking.

I put the pan into the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes, until the top layer had slightly browned.

Overall, the pastitsio takes an hour total to make. And one pan can easily serve up to eight.

All that was left to do was dig in!

I’ve had more plates of pastitsio than I can count and it has never, ever let me down. The meat filling is so savory and comforting with the penne, while the béchamel sauce is light and creamy. Plus, it’s a nice contrast to the texture of the pasta on top — which has a great crunch. 

And, as with all Greek dishes, the pastitsio tastes even better if you add some feta cheese.  

I may be biased, but I think my dad’s pastitsio is way better than lasagna — and should be in everyone’s pasta repertoire.

Pastitsio is super easy to make (even for a very amateur chef like me), only takes an hour total in the kitchen, and is perfect for either a dinner party or as a dish that’ll give you plenty of leftovers. And, compared to most lasagna recipes, it’s incredibly low lift. 

Plus, eating pastitsio just feels like a hug. It’s creamy and savory without being too heavy — I’ve enjoyed it both on rainy days and in the middle of California summers. And it goes great with a glass of red (or a cheeky bottle of Prosecco). 

No matter the weather, day, or occasion, pastitsio has long been a family favorite. My grandma — who, like me, wasn’t the most naturally talented in the kitchen — used to make it often for my dad when he was a kid.

We’ll probably never really know if cooking skills (or lack thereof) are passed down from generation to generation. But, thankfully, great recipes can be inherited too. 

Now I’m passing this one down to you. 

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