No, he’s not a little Italian kid, no, he’s not an old Italian guy, no, he’s not my latest chef crush. Johnny Marsetti’s not even a person. It’s the name of a casserole. In fact, my mother and I are the ONLY people I have ever heard use the term “Johnny Marsetti”. A few years back, I Googled it, and got nothing. Literally, nothing. From Google! I have no idea what it means, where it came from, why this casserole carries this name. All I know—all I want to know—is that this dish has a weird name, and an obscure origin, but tastes so, damn, good. I am happy to remain lost in the fog of mystery surrounding Johnny Marsetti’s anthropology, and just accept that it just IS what it IS (how existential). It’s a casserole, that’s vaguely Italian, and easy to make in large quantities and possesses the penultimate qualifying trait of all casseroles: Squishy-ness.
Yeah, I know...squishy is not generally a word one wants to hear about their food. I get it, it’s weird. Gak is squishy (remember that stuff?? It smelled funny, to boot), mud is squishy, soggy bread is squishy…most squishy things are total gross-outs. However, I am not using squishy to refer to a casserole’s structural qualities, I am using squishy as a sort of onomatopoeia. That sort of unctuous, wet sound of moist noodles moving against a luscious sauce. The awaiting deliciousness is audible, adding another layer of sensory experience to Eating. In this case, squishy is not only desirable; squishy is a necessity.
Johnny Marsetti seems to be, at least in my experience, the squishiest of all the casseroles. And I love casseroles. Waving my white flag high, I surrender to this admission: casseroles are wonderful. They just make me feel warm and fuzzy inside, all bubbling and warm, and savory, some beautiful kind of brown-ness forming on the top as they bake. YUM, FREAKING YUM.
(WARNING: I’m about to talk about my childhood. SUCH a departure from my normal forms of nostalgia, I know.)
I have distinct memories about three casseroles in particular that my mom made a lot when I was growing up: Johnny Marsetti, Tuna Noodle, and Dried Beef. Now, you’ve all heard of Tuna Noodle Casserole. There are some variations on it, but for the most part it’s the same wherever you go. Dried Beef I have come to realize is also another one of those fantastic PA Dutch concoctions, I’ve described it to people as “creamed chipped beef gravy over elbow macaroni and mushrooms, baked until bubbly”, which doesn’t really do it justice (it’s wayyy tastier than I make it sound), but is the best I can do without actually baking a dish of it for everyone I’ve ever described it to. And Johnny Marsetti is a fantastic example of what the beauty of a casserole actually is: an in-exact gathering of noodles, meat, veggies and cheese. Like I said earlier, there are shades of Italian flavors in it, and also some very distinct shades of classic 1950’s America.
It’s hard to write a recipe for Johnny Marsetti. Well, it’s hard for me to do that with everything I make that’s not a baked good, cause I rarely stick to a recipe, and even more rarely measure anything, so…bear with me on this. It’s not exact, and please, feel free to fully engage with the Art of Casserole Making , and use as much or as little of each ingredient as you like.
1lb extra-lean ground beef
1 jar marinara sauce (I like Bertolli’s Marinara with Burgandy wine) + 8oz more
1 8oz can of sliced mushrooms, drained
1 small sweet onion, chopped
8oz. Velveeta, cubed
6-8 slices American cheese
10-12oz elbow macaroni, cooked
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Salt & Black Pepper to taste
Heat 1TBL EVOO in large skillet. Add beef to skillet and season with salt, black pepper, garlic powder and Italian seasoning to taste. Cook until browned, remove from pan to drain. Add chopped onion to pan, sauté until translucent, add beef (sans extra fat) and mushrooms at this point. Heat mushrooms through, and add marinara sauce. Simmer, covered for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
In the meantime, cook pasta according to directions on box. Drain and set aside. Cube Velveeta, and if you need to, unwrap the American cheese slices.
Transfer meat sauce to the pot you used to cook the pasta. Add pasta in batches until you have your desired proportion of pasta to sauce (remember that some—not a lot—of sauce will get absorbed when cooking in the oven). Stir to combine. Add all the Velveeta, and stir. Immediately transfer mixture to a lightly greased 9x13 glass baking dish. Top with 6-8 slices of American cheese (enough to generally cover the entire top surface). Bake at 350 degrees for 15-30 or until bubbling and cheese on top is slightly brown. Let cool for 10 minutes, serve.
The “serve” is the most exciting part. You cut a square of this, heave it out of the dish, and slide it onto your plate, and for one single 10-second interlude, it’s the sexiest thing ever. That Velveeta does its job, baby. Oh, yeah. It oozes its hot little self all over the place. Slipping quietly out from the ridges and crevasses of the pasta and sauce, and you find yourself, mouth agape, eyes glazed over, like you’re some 12 year old boy that inadvertently happens to catch the hot lady next door tanning topless in her backyard. You find yourself wanting to raise your palms high in the air and praise God full-on-Gospel-choir-style for processed cheese. No other cheese in the universe melts like Velveeta. So, don’t stray, don’t substitute, don’t you DARE even THINK about not using Velveeta. Embrace the Mother Goddess of the yellow-cheese world, I promise you will not regret it.
Yeah, casseroles are in-elegant. Yeah, they are born out of things from cans and processed cheese. Yeah, they’re kind of haphazard. But, I happen to think that there’s nothing wrong with that and besides, they’re kinda freakin’ wonderful. Let’s get over ourselves for a minute. In this age of local-sustainable-organic-artisanal-acai berry spiked foods; in this age where some schmuck on TV who looks about as happy as a hamster in a goldfish bowl is trying to tell me that roasted squash seeds and wheat grass juice will change my life; dust off the can opener, dig the Velveeta out of the back of the fridge, tie Grandma’s favorite frilly apron around your waist, and get downnnn wit’ yo’ bad housewife self (yes, even the guys). Move over, June Cleaver, the 1950’s are back! Make a casserole and for Christ’s sake, try to enjoy the fact that for some reason, despite everything your modern food revolution self is telling you, there’s something divine about canned and processed all baked into one meal. Try it, you’ll thank me when it’s over.