This is one of my favorite dishes and sure to please a crowd. I've taken it as a covered dish and served it family style at my own table. It comes in many variations and however you make it I'm sure it is popular. I have a friend that makes it with four kinds of cheeses plus sour cream. My traditional recipe is not so complex or perhaps rich.
To start, I brown the meat in a heavy pot, remove it and then saute a chopped onion in the drippings for 3-4 minutes. If my guests are not "allergic" to mushrooms (is this code for 'I don't like'), I add those and let them start to release their juices. If I have a green pepper handy, I saute this as well. Once the solids are removed from the pot, I deglaze the pan with some red one (about 1/2 cup), then I make a traditional red sauce or if I'm pressed for time, a good canned pasta sauce suffices. To the sauce I add pitted calamata olives.
While the sauce cooks I start boiling a large pot of water and cooking the ziti, which should be cooked only until it is just al dente (about 8 minutes, ensure not to overcook as it will continue cooking in the oven). Remove the pasta from the cooktop, drain and toss lightly with some olive oil. Then add enough sauce until the pasta is pretty well covered and is relatively wet. The ziti requires more sauce than you might normally apply because it will be going into the oven and as it continues to cook there, it will absorb the sauce. If you do not start with a sufficiently wet pasta, it will be dry when it comes out of the oven.
In a large baking dish which I have prepared with food release (Pam), I now begin the assembly by coating the bottom of the dish with sauce. Simply begin layering the sauced ziti with the meat and cheese ending with the pasta. Make sure your dish isn't too full as it will expand somewhat as the ziti finishes cooking in the oven.
With regard to the cheese, I usually make baked ziti with fresh mozzarella sliced and layered between the pasta, as shown here. Fresh mozzarella is soft and melts easily. However, if you happen to have some provolone on hand, feel free to use that too. Some people even enjoy ricotta cheese in this dish. Really any good cheeses will do, although I do recommend some type of cheese that will become creamy when baked. I would not over do it on the harder cheeses that become stringy when heated. You can top the dish with shredded mozzarella, a combination of mozzarella and cheddar or just sprinkle it with grated Parmesan.
I bake the ziti in a 400F degree oven for about 20-30 minutes. Your goal here is to let the pasta cook in the sauce to absorb flavors as well as to brown the cheese on the top of the dish. If you want to make it ahead of time, you can cover it in foil just before the baking step and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. However, before baking let it sit at room temperature for 2 hours to help it begin to warm. Then bake it for 45 minutes in a 350F to ensure it is hot all the way through.
My nephew Alex, prior to tasting this dish, insisted he didn't like pasta. After he had this dish, he changed his mind!! I'm sure you and yours will love it too.