For my Italian friend Lou “the baker” Cantolupo's birthday, his good friends, Jim and Jessica, decided that they would host an Italian feast, "New Joisey" style, in honor of Lou's love for Italian red sauce. Lou likes classic, no-frills red sauce. In Jim’s words: “We're talkin' just real, old-fashioned red-sauce, de way God and Lou's beloved ancestral homeland, New Joisey, intended. Cabeesh?”
It sounded exactly like the Italian red-sauce meals I ate growing up, the most famous of which was my dad's manicotti. Dad learned how to build a good red sauce for manicotti from his Italian friend's mom in high school.
Dad lost contact with his friend, but he always remembered the dishes he learned and eventually adopted them as his own.
The manicotti, which he has modified over the years, is meat-packed and served casserole-style. The noodles are stuffed with a ricotta mixture of egg, parsley, onion, and ground beef and pork. It's then baked with a meat-based red sauce and topped with loads of grated mozzarella. I loved it growing up and I still consider it a favorite.
So when Jim, a.k.a. "Jimmy Meatballs," included manicotti in the menu options for Lou's birthday, I jumped at the chance to make it.
That evening, we ate more than anyone thought was possible, danced crazily around the living room to Prince, and experienced a once-in-a-lifetime ode to good old-fashioned Italian red sauce.
Serves 8 – 12
2 packages of manicotti shells
For the red sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 big pinch of red pepper flakes
1 big pinch of toasted fennel seeds
2 onions, diced
3 cans of tomato sauce
1 can of whole or diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon oregano
1 bay leaf
5-6 links mild or hot Italian sausage, removed from their casings
1 pound ground beef (I used buffalo meat and it was great)
Freshly ground pepper to taste (a lot)
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste (I used about a tablespoon)
For the filling
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 garlic clove
1/2 teaspoon toasted fennel seed
2 15-ounce containers ricotta
Meat mixture reserved from sauce
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
For the topping
1-1/2 pounds freshly grated mozzarella
1 cup finely grated parmesan
Heat the olive oil in a pan over a medium flame. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, and fennel seeds. Simmer for about 15 seconds. Add the diced onions and anchovy and simmer until the onions are translucent. Add the tomato sauce and cook until bubbling. In a separate pan, cook Italian sausage and ground beef until cooked through. In batches, pulse the meat in a blender so that the chunks are all one size. Put half the meat in the sauce and reserve the other half for the filling. Adjust the seasonings in the red sauce to taste and cook for another hour (you may need to add water from keeping it from getting too thick).
It's best if you cook the red sauce a day in advance.
For the filling, heat the olive oil in a pan over medium flame. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is translucent. When cooked through, set aside and cool. Add ricotta, eggs, parsley, salt, pepper, and fennel seed to a large bowl and combine. Add the cooled onion and the reserved meat mixture and combine.
Cook the manicotti shells as instructed on the package and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. To build the manicotti, layer two 9x13-inch baking dishes with a thin layer of sauce. Stuff the manicotti shells and layer each shell on top of the sauce.
Cover the stuffed shells with another, thicker layer of sauce, then top with mozzarella and parmesan. Bake for about 25 minutes.
Should you ever want to throw a real red sauce-style Eyetalian feast, here was our menu that evening, which Tim Carman captured in his terrific blog posting for the City Paper.
Lou's big fat 'boitay' dinner
Tuna spread on crostini
Two types of stuffed olives
Spaghetti with baseball-sized meatballs
Shrimp fra diavolo
Sausage and peppers
Rapini with mustard, maple, and balsamic
Spinach and garlic
10 bottles of red wine
A ton of garlic bread
Tiramisu, made by yours truly