Rigatoni with Eggplant Bolognese

Hear ye, hear ye! This is not – I repeat not – a vegetarian version of meat sauce.

Vertical image of a white plate with a tomato and pasta dish, in front of basil and a green bowl, with text on the top and bottom of the image.

Don’t let the title of the recipe fool you into thinking this traditionally-beefy Bolognese sauce is made sans meat. Ground beef is fully present in this production, it just happens to get scooted over from center stage a bit to give the veggies a chance to shine.

And if you think like me, you know that all of the above only means one thing:

We don’t need to serve a salad with dinner!

I mean, to each his own, so feel free to enjoy every bite of this Bolognese alongside a garlicky Caesar salad if that’s your thing. But for me, when I can squeeze a good amount of veggies into the main course, that means one less healthy side is required, which ultimately means less dishes too.

If that doesn’t make this one-hour dinner appealing, I don’t know what will.

Vertical image of a thick tomato sauce finished with chopped basil in a cast iron skillet stirred with a wooden spoon.

Well, other than the fact it’s also an opportunity for enjoying garlic bread. It’s a tough job, to be a leading member of the clean plate club. But someone has to swipe up every last drop of sauce with a crusty baguette.

If you clicked on this recipe and were really stoked on the idea of subbing the meat in traditional meat sauce for meaty eggplant, don’t worry. No one’s going to come into your kitchen and dump any beef into your sauce.

That’d be weird.

Skip the meat and double the eggplant for a vegetarian version of this dish. Or go one step further and sub a vegan protein in for the meat and leave out the parmesan for a fully vegan meal.

As for me, I’m keeping the meat.

Vertical close-up image of a fork piercing into a bolognese rigatoni dish on a white plate.

The main reason is because I adore the fatty flavor it leaves in the pan just before the veggies take a dip. Eggplant soaks up liquid like a sponge, so you better believe that as soon as it hits that rendered beef juice, it’s game on in flavor town.

If you really want to lean in to the classic Bolognese, a combination of beef and pork is commonly used. Today, we’re keeping things on the simple side.

Carrots are a quintessential Bolognese sauce ingredient celebrated for adding a touch of sweetness, which cuts through the fat of the sumptuous sauce. This recipe calls on earthy eggplant and zucchini for even more flavor and texture. The veggies bring substance to the sauce, not to mention some nutritional added benefits. Check out zucchini’s rap sheet here.

As the eggplant stews during simmertime (my favorite season), the cubes become sweet, rich flavor nuggets that are weaved into every bite. Loads of fragrant basil bring the fresh vegetal notes full circle, and salty parmesan adds sharpness.

Vertical top-down image of a wooden spoon stirring a

Pasta shape and size is typically personal preference, but I’m begging you to choose rigatoni for this meal. Larger than penne, these wide-barreled noodles are slightly curved and act as little lifeboats for your eggplant Bolognese.

As for their exterior ridges? Simply an additional space where the sauce lives rent-free, for your enjoyment!

I don’t know anything about real estate, but I’ll appraise this Bolognese if you don’t have the time…

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Horizontal image of a pasta and tomato sauce recipe in a white bowl on top of blue napkins.

Rigatoni with Eggplant Bolognese

  • Author: Fanny Slater
  • Total Time: 1 hour
  • Yield: 4 to 6 servings 1x


Boost the flavor and texture of traditional Bolognese with our veg-heavy version packed with tender goodies like eggplant and zucchini.


  • 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided 
  • 1 pound ground beef (preferably 80/20)
  • 2 teaspoons coarse salt, divided, plus more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided, plus more to taste
  • 1 large eggplant (about 1 pound), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 2 cups chopped yellow onion (about 1 medium)
  • 1 cup peeled and diced carrot (about 2 medium)
  • 1 cup diced zucchini (about 1 medium)
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, or 1 tablespoon fresh
  • 3 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 1 pound rigatoni
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, divided, plus more for serving
  • 1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped, plus more for garnish


  1. In a large heavy-bottomed pot, add 2 tablespoons of the oil and warm it up over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef and season with 1 teaspoon of the salt and 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper. Breaking up the meat with a spoon, saute until browned, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the beef from the pan and set it aside.
  2. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil to the pot and reduce the heat to medium. Add the eggplant, onion, carrot, and zucchini, and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and the oregano. Saute, stirring occasionally, until the veggies have softened and taken on some color, about 3 minutes.
  3. Stir in the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Stir in the tomato paste to coat the veggies and cook for an additional minute. Deglaze the pot with the canned tomatoes, scraping the bottom to release any bits that are stuck. 
  4. Return the beef to the pot, and stir in the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, and cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing burns, for about 30 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.
  5. While the sauce is simmering, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the rigatoni according to package instructions, reserving 1 cup of the starchy cooking water before draining.
  6. Add the cooked pasta, 1/4 cup of the parmesan, and the basil to the pot with the sauce and toss, slowly adding the reserved starchy cooking water a few tablespoons at a time to help the sauce cling to the noodles. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper.
  7. Divide among plates, garnish with grated parmesan and basil, and serve with extra parmesan alongside.
  • Prep Time: 20 minutes
  • Cook Time: 40 minutes
  • Category: Pasta
  • Cuisine: Italian

Keywords: rigatoni, pasta, eggplant, bolognese

Cooking By the Numbers…

Step 1 – Gather, Prep, and Measure Ingredients

If you can only find smaller eggplant that weigh about 5 ounces each, you’ll want to use 3 small ones in place of the large eggplant called for in this recipe.

Horizontal image of assorted ingredients in bowls, pasta in a red colander, and raw beef in a black container.

Trim the ends off the eggplant, and slice it lengthwise into 1/2-inch slabs. Stack the slabs on top of each other, slice lengthwise into 1/2-inch-wide strips, and then cut those into 1/2-inch cubes.

Chop the onion. Dice the carrot and zucchini. Mince the garlic and roughly chop the basil. Keep some of the smaller leaves for garnish.

Step 2 –Brown the Beef

Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons of the oil. Let it warm up.

Horizontal image of browning ground meat in a cast iron skillet next to bowls of prepped vegetables.

Add the ground beef, season with 1 teaspoon of the salt and 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper, and cook until it’s browned, making sure to break up the meat with a spoon so it cooks evenly. This will take about 5 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon so you can keep the fat in the pan for cooking the veggies, set the ground beef aside on a plate.

Step 3 – Cook the Veggies

Lower the heat to medium and add the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil to the pan. This may seem like a lot of fat, but the veggies – particularly the eggplant – will soak it up quickly. Give the oil a few minutes to heat up.

Horizontal image of cooking an assortment of chopped vegetables in a cast iron skillet.

Add the eggplant, onion, carrot, and zucchini, and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and the oregano. Stirring occasionally to make sure everything is cooking evenly, saute until the veggies have taken on a little color and are softened, for about 3 minutes.

Step 4 – Add the Aromatics and Tomatoes

Stir in the garlic, and cook for about 30 seconds or until it’s fragrant. Don’t allow the garlic to burn.

Horizontal image of adding tomato sauce to a cast iron skillet with cooked assorted vegetables.

Stir in the tomato paste so it coats the veggies and heats through, to concentrate the natural sugars that it contains, for about 1 minute.

White wine (though you could use red) and cream or milk are common ingredients in an American-style Bolognese, so feel free to use a quarter to half a cup of wine to deglaze the pan in this step if you like, before adding the canned tomatoes. About 1/3 cup of milk or cream can be stirred in just before serving if you opt to use that, for a richer sauce.

Deglaze the pan with the crushed and diced tomatoes, scraping the bottom to release any brown bits that are stuck. Stir the beef back into the sauce.

Step 5 – Simmer the Sauce and Cook the Rigatoni

Season the sauce with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring the sauce to a boil, with a tilted lid on top if you need it, to prevent any unexpected splatters.

Horizontal image of a thick tomato sauce in a cast iron skillet.

Cover the sauce with the lid, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer until the sauce has thickened, stirring occasionally to make sure the bottom isn’t burning. This took about 30 minutes for me.

While the sauce is simmering, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the rigatoni according to package instructions. Before draining in a colander, reserve about 1 cup of the starchy cooking water and set it aside. This will be used to help the sauce cling to the noodles.

Step 6 – Toss the Rigatoni and Sauce, Garnish, and Serve

Using either the pasta pot as your vessel or the pan containing the sauce, depending on its size, toss the cooked pasta, 1/4 cup of the parmesan, and the basil together.

Horizontal image of tossing cooked rigatoni with sauce in a cast iron skillet.

Add the reserved starchy cooking water a few tablespoons at a time while you toss, to help everything come together. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper if necessary.

Horizontal image of a tomato meat sauce tossed in pasta on a white plate next to a green bowl filled with grated parmesan.

Divide the pasta among plates, making sure you’re generous with the sauce and spooning a little extra over the top of each serving. Garnish with the remaining parmesan and basil, and serve with extra grated parmesan alongside.

Starchy Water Saves the Day

If you’ve ever wondered why so many recipes call for reserving the pasta cooking water, here’s the deal:

Horizontal image of a pasta and tomato sauce recipe in a white bowl on top of blue napkins.

The starchy water helps the sauce cloak the noodles in a way that it can’t really do by itself. Sure, you can toss pasta and sauce together and end up with a great meal. But you’re not doing the noods as much justice without the added thickener, and you’re missing out on a silky richness only starchy cooking water can bring.

Between the pound of pasta, pound of meat, and boatload of veggies, this dish can definitely feed a small crowd. What to do with all those leftovers?

Dump them into an oven-friendly casserole dish, toss with some shredded mozzarella, dot with ricotta, and poof! You just gave your eggplant Bolognese a baked ziti-esque makeover.

Crushed red pepper flakes add a perfect spark of heat, and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil offers a glossy garnish.

How will you top your Bolognese before serving? Share your great ideas in the comments below! And don’t forget to give this recipe a five-star rating if you loved it.

If you’re an eggplant enthusiast and agree that this humble vegetable is often overlooked, you’ll love these recipes that give the tasty nightshade veg a starring role:

Photos by Fanny Slater, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published by Jennifer Swartvagher on July 21, 2015. Last updated on April 21, 2022.

Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.

About Fanny Slater

Fanny Slater is a home-taught food enthusiast based in Wilmington, North Carolina who won the “Rachael Ray Show” Great American Cookbook Competition in 2014, and published her cookbook “Orange, Lavender & Figs” in 2016. Fanny is a food and beverage writer, recipe developer, and social media influencer. She was a co-host on the Food Network series “Kitchen Sink,” was featured on Cooking Channel’s longtime popular series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and continues to appear regularly on the “Rachael Ray Show.”

19 thoughts on “Rigatoni with Eggplant Bolognese”

  1. Such a simple recipe, time to try it out and have my very own little Italian Cuisine in my humble abode, but first, lets note down the grocery shopping list required and do up a budget, a definite meal that suits me this coming weekend, can’t wait 😉

  2. Looks yummy! Seems pretty simple too, I might be able to make this one without the misses help (maybe lol.)
    I would like to kick it up with a little heat, perhaps crushed red chili’s would do the trick!
    We also do a meatless meal or two a week, healthy for the belly and the budget.

  3. I agree with jonyMacdonald; I think I would enjoy a little spice in this meal as well. This overall is perfect for my pasta and meat-loving family. However, as one of my friends is a pescatarian, I can definitely cook the meatless version for her. Thank you for the recipe!

  4. I love any kind of noodles with or without meat. This is a meal I would enjoy and love to make since I don’t know not one person that doesn’t like pasta. Although I’m sure there are people that don’t like it.

  5. Looks delicious and a meatless version would make a fantastic frugal meal. Con or non-carne, this dish also provides a valuable contribution to your “five-a-day” and I, for one, am always looking for new ways to get as much veg into my meals as possible.

  6. I always keep pasta in the house because it’s so versatile, and this is a great way to pack in several vegetables without even realizing it. The addition of eggplant makes this perfect for me, since I love that, and never seem to get enough of it. I’m going to pick up these ingredients and make this soon, and I can’t wait to taste it.

  7. Why hello there, bolognese dish with a vegetarian option! I’ve never had it because of the beef, so I’m very curious to try a meatless version of this recipe. I have a feeling I’ll want to add it to my regular rotation, especially while eggplant and zucchini are abundant..

  8. Pasta is my life – I would eat it for every meal if I could, but alas, the carbs & lack of nutrition value. I very rarely add anything on to my noodles aside from a little bit of salt, but I do need to start adding in things that will make eating it a more balanced meal, and this sounds like the perfect mix! It has protein, veggies, lots of good stuff; everything I SHOULD be having with my meal but seem to skip over in favor of having the tasty food I prefer. With this recipe, though, I can get the best of both worlds. I look forward to giving this one a try next time the craving strikes… which will probably be soon, considering how much I love it, haha.

  9. Ok, I’ll have this one wrapped up to go. I’d like to place an order for delivery. Lol, pictures really can get the taste buds going. Bolognese sauces are one of my favorites. This one seems really simple to make. Rigatoni is so much easier to deal with than regular spaghetti. I’ve never put eggplant with zucchini I bet that is a good combination to put together. Sometimes I like to lightly stir fry them, I might even use them raw in this one.

  10. This recipe reminded me that I snagged some eggplants at teh farmer’s market & ridiculously put them in the bottom of my veggie drawer. Yay! I was intending on making Julia Child’s famous pizza eggplant parmesan but I’ve already done that a few times in my life. Always nice to give another recipe a shot at glory.

  11. Wow, that’s pretty awesome! I’ve been making different kind of sauces to my pasta lately, and using vegetarian bolognese (from the store, with tofu bits; it’s actually the best pre-fixed bolognese I’ve had!), but I really like the idea of having some homemade veg bolognese. The fact that your picture looks so lovely helps, too! I just wanna ask — what is the reason behind the rigatoni choice? I don’t think we have this in my lil’ village stores, so is the size important or…?

  12. I never thought of this combination before but it seems like it would be a great fit! Rigatoni tastes really good with the meat and vegetables give it a unique taste.
    By the way, can the vegetables be substituted for others for this recipe?

  13. This recipe is exactly what I needed. I’m a big fan of eggplant, and I love growing it in my garden, but I always run out of ideas for ways to cook it. I usually bread and fry it, which isn’t really the healthiest way to cook any vegetable, or I make an Asian stir fry with it. It never occurred to me to use it in an Italian dish without breading and frying. I’m definitely making this when a batch is ready to harvest from my garden.

  14. I am a vegetarian and i love this recipe. i found something similar online but this one is far better because of the eggplant instead of more zucchini like in my old recipe. The combination of herbs and tomato is just in accordance with the veggies and garlic is giving that fragrant note of Italy and it goes so good with a glass of white wine. I have just made this dish for me and my family and even though they are not vegetarians they loved it. Thank you for this one, it is amazing.

  15. Oh my, pasta and eggplant! This is a perfect combination for me. I love both (other than chocolates, hehe!). This is truly a delightful meal to have. I’ll probably go with the meatless route. No scientific proof or purely by coincidence, who knows – Since I eliminated beef in my diet, I no longer have pain symptoms due to my adenomyosis!

  16. Wow, that’s pretty awesome! I am a vegetarian and i love this recipe.I always keep pasta in the house because it’s so versatile, and this is a great way to pack in several vegetables without even realizing it. I would like to kick it up with a little heat, perhaps crushed red chili’s would do the trick! I’m going to pick up these ingredients and make this soon, and I can’t wait to taste it.

  17. This recipe looks right up my alley. Rigatoni is a staple picnic dish in my family. I enjoy it, but after you have it several times over the summer, it does start to get old. That is why I never actually make it for myself. This is actually worthwhile for me to try on my own though, especially as it includes eggplant. I am a loyal meat eater, but eggplant is one of the few things I will allow as a substitute for meat in a dish. Can’t wait to try this!


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