This Italian Mac and Cheese recipe is topped with golden crispy breadcrumbs, seasoned with garlic and herbs, and smothered in a decadent mozzarella and parmesan cheese sauce! Since it’s broiled only for a few minutes, it’s not dry like other baked macaroni and cheese recipes. It’s perfect as a vegetarian side dish or main course.
I’ve been wondering what to do with the GIANT bag of shredded mozzarella cheese sitting in my fridge. Sometimes the best recipes come from using stuff up with what I have. In fact, raiding your fridge or pantry is a great way to reduce food waste.
And this Italian mac and cheese is no exception. No cheese will ever be wasted in my house!
The cheese sauce is creamy and decadent, made with butter, milk, mozzarella cheese, parmesan cheese, and some fresh parsley. The breadcrumb topping – oh boy. A mixture of breadcrumbs, butter, more parmesan and parsley, and garlic powder. And when the two meet, it’s heaven.
The time-saving trick for this recipe is that it’s broiled for only a few minutes after sprinkling the breadcrumbs on top, as opposed to baked. This does two things: 1) saves tons of time, and 2) doesn’t dry out the mac and cheese!
And using an oven-safe skillet to cook the sauce AND broil the mac and cheese saves on dishes.
Here are the details.
How to make Italian Mac and Cheese
Just mix up the cheese sauce, stir in cooked pasta, top with breadcrumbs, and broil!
- First, melt some butter in an oven safe skillet. Then, sprinkle on some flour to make a roux, whisking, and cook for about a minute just to get rid of the raw flour taste.
- Gradually pour in some milk, whisking as you go. You want it to be smooth, so try to whisk out any lumps from the flour. It’s OK if there are some lumps initially- just keep whisking until everything is heated up and thickened and the lumps go away.
- Add the cheese– mozzarella and parmesan- as well as some fresh parsley. Stir and behold- the most glorious cheese sauce you’ve ever encountered.
- Add cooked pasta to the cheese sauce and stir to coat. The cheese sauce may seem really thick, almost too thick, but don’t worry, it will settle down a bit as the pasta sits in it for a little while. If you like, you can eat it now and skip the breadcrumbs for a simple stovetop macaroni and cheese recipe.
- Mix some breadcrumbs with melted butter, parmesan, parsley, garlic powder, and black pepper, then sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture on top of the macaroni.
- Broil for 5-10 minutes and you’re done!
Tips and Tricks
- Cook the pasta until al dente and drain, but don’t rinse off any water clinging to the pasta. Any extra water will integrate with the sauce and help it stick to the pasta, as well as thin it out a bit.
- When broiling, keep an eye on it. Scoot the pan around a bit so the breadcrumbs toast evenly. If you take it out and realize they were not toasted evenly, you can use a spoon to evenly distribute the toasty breadcrumbs around the top of the mac and cheese. And make sure it doesn’t burn!
- When you take it out of the oven, place a handle cover on the handle of the skillet you used. I’ve grabbed a hot handle from the oven absentmindedly more times than I can count… which is not very fun!
If you don’t have an oven-safe skillet
You can bake this mac and cheese in a baking dish. Just transfer the pasta and cheese mixture to a lightly greased 9×13 baking dish and sprinkle with breadcrumbs.
If your baking dish isn’t broiler safe (and it’s likely not, if it’s glass or ceramic), just bake at 450 degrees F for 10-15 minutes until breadcrumbs are toasty.
And if you’re in the market for a great oven-safe skillet, I LOVE this Calphalon Tri Ply 5 qt. pan– the deep sides make it easy to mix up your favorite pasta without making a huge mess and it cleans and cooks really well.
Can this mac and cheese be made ahead?
Yes it can! BUT, with a caveat. You would need to bake it for longer to reheat it, which will result in dryer mac and cheese. Still delicious, though! (Please note: I have not personally tried this with this particular recipe.)
You can assemble the mac and cheese in a lightly greased 9×13 baking dish and cover with foil and refrigerate for 2-3 days. When you are ready to bake, bake covered with foil at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, then uncover and crank the temp up to 450 and bake for 10-15 more minutes, until breadcrumbs are toasted (or broil, if your pan is broiler safe).
You can freeze the assembled mac and cheese and either defrost for 24 hours before baking using the refrigerator instructions above, or bake directly from the freezer. Bake the frozen mac and cheese covered with foil at 350 degrees for an hour, then uncover and bake at 450 until breadcrumbs are toasted (or broil, if your pan is broiler safe).
Keep in mind, the longer the mac and cheese is in the oven, the more likely it is to dry out a bit.
- Dried Italian Seasoning may be substituted for the fresh parsley- use 1 teaspoon in the cheese sauce and 1 teaspoon in the breadcrumb mixture.
- Panko or regular breadcrumbs can be used- just make sure they’re unseasoned (or you can use Italian Style Seasoned Bread crumbs and omit the extra herbs in the breadcrumb mixture).
- Any small or medium pasta can be used, such as macaroni, small penne, small shells, rotini, etc. Whole wheat or regular is fine.
- Romano, asagio, or another aged hard cheese can be used in place of or mixed in with the parmesan.
- Olive oil may be used in place of the butter.
It’s easy to add cooked Italian sausage, ground beef or turkey, or another protein to this mac and cheese to make it heartier! Just add it when you add the pasta to the cheese sauce. You could also use leftover roast chicken, or canned chickpeas or white beans for a vegetarian version.
Other Italian Pasta Recipes
- Pasta e Fagioli (pasta with beans)
- 5-ingredient Pasta with Bolognese Sauce
- Chicken Piccata Pasta with Green Beans
- Spaghetti with Burrata and Veggies
- Easy Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Browse all pasta recipes here.
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Italian Mac and Cheese
- 8 oz. medium shells pasta or other small-medium pasta shape, whole wheat or regular
- 4 tablespoons butter divided
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 cups milk preferably whole
- 8 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese (about 2 cups)
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese divided
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley divided
- 1 cup breadcrumbs regular or panko, unseasoned
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- kosher salt and black pepper
- Cook pasta according to directions until al dente in salted water.
- Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large oven-safe skillet. Add the flour (2 tablespoons) and stir to coat in the butter, and continue to cook, stirring, for about 1 minute. Gradually pour in the milk (2 cups) and whisk to combine so there are no clumps of flour. Continue heating and whisking until thickened a bit (about 2 minutes). Stir in the mozzarella cheese (8 oz.), half of the parmesan cheese (1/4 cup), and half of the fresh parsley (2 tablespoons). Whisk until fully combined.
- In a small bowl, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the breadcrumbs (1 cup), the rest of the parmesan (1/4 cup), the rest of the parsley (2 tablespoons), the garlic powder (1 teaspoon), and plenty of black pepper. Stir until breadcrumbs are well-coated in the butter.
- When pasta is done cooking, drain it or use a slotted spoon to transfer it over to the cheese sauce. Stir to coat. It will seem really thick- don't worry, it will thin out as the pasta and any water clinging to it settles in.
- Sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture on top of the pasta and cheese sauce.
- Broil for 5-10 minutes close to the top of the oven, rotating the skillet if necessary and checking to make sure it doesn't burn. Once the breadcrumbs are golden-brown, remove from oven, place a handle cover or towel on the skillet's handle, and serve the mac and cheese sprinkled with more fresh parsley, if desired.
- This recipe feeds 8 as a side, and 4-6 as a main course. Since it’s so rich, I recommend it as a side, so the nutrition information is based on the smaller portion.
- Don’t have an oven-safe skillet? Make the cheese sauce in another skillet or pot, mix the pasta with it, and transfer everything to a lightly greased 9×13 (or similar) baking dish, then top with breadcrumbs and proceed as directed. If the baking dish is not broiler safe, I recommend baking at a high temp (around 450 degrees) for 15 minutes, until breadcrumbs are golden.
- Make ahead instructions: You can assemble this mac and cheese in a 9×13 baking dish up to two days in advance. Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Then uncover and bake at 450 degrees until breadcrumbs are toasted for about 10-15 minutes. You can also freeze the assembled mac and cheese- I recommend defrosting it for 24 hours in the fridge before baking it, or cooking it covered straight from the freezer for an hour before uncovering. Keep in mind- longer cooking times may result in a dryer mac and cheese.
- Add veggies: frozen peas, sliced zucchini, baby spinach, or other veggies would be welcome additions to this mac and cheese. Add them to the pasta toward the last few minutes of cooking (time will depend on the veggie) to cook directly in the pasta water and drain with the pasta. You could also add chopped sun dried tomatoes, jarred roasted red peppers, or capers to the sauce.
- Add Protein: Italian sausage or ground beef/turkey can be added for a heartier meal- I recommend crumbling and browning it and adding the cooked sausage crumbles when you add the cooked pasta to the cheese sauce, leaving any fat from cooking the sausage behind. You can also add leftover shredded rotisserie chicken or drained and rinsed canned beans.
- Traditional parmesan cheese may not be suitable for a strict vegetarian diet because it contains animal rennet. If you prefer, you can look for a suitable vegetarian substitute, such as a parmesan made with plant rennet.