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I'm happiest when the food I make becomes a backdrop to a lively conversation. When I'm not cooking, I'm traveling or dreaming about travel. Come sit with me, and enjoy! Read more here.

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« veal demi-glace: a recipe with two key ingredients -- patience and will | Main | buckwheat crepes with leek and gruyere: a craving revived »

manicotti: a real, no-frills 'eyetalian' tradition

Primi -- Manicotti

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
1 anchovy
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 onion
1/2 teaspoon toasted fennel seed
2 15-ounce containers ricotta
Meat mixture reserved from sauce
2 eggs
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



Anchovy-bread spiedini
Tuna spread on crostini

Two types of stuffed olives
Stuffed peppers
Boiled eggs
Sun-dried tomatoes
Utica greens

Spaghetti with baseball-sized meatballs
Shrimp fra diavolo
Vodka penne

Sausage and peppers
Chicken parmesan

Rapini with mustard, maple, and balsamic
Spinach and garlic

10 bottles of red wine

A ton of garlic bread

Tiramisu, made by yours truly

Dessert drinks:
Homemade limoncello


Reader Comments (12)

I soooo enjoyed this post, mainly because it was all so familiar from the Joisey accent to the 10 bottles of wine to the gravy stained stove!! I've lived it! Also was impressed with the recipe...not many people use fennel seeds and it adds such a wonderful flavor to food. Great job! Happy new year!

December 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJoan Nova

OMG, your holiday table looks so scrumptious with all of those delicious meal. And, the menu so mouth watering. Seems like you have really nice gathering.

I never made manicotti before, sound really delicious.
Have a wonderful one,

December 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterElra

Thanks, Joan! Lucky you, you got to live it! Happy new year to you!

Thanks, Elra! One thing I should say about manicotti if you've never made it is that it's a lot easier than it looks. Let me know if you try it!

December 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Angela, this is surely a feast...love that about the holidays.

I adore manicotti and cannelloni but what is the subtle difference?

December 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPeter M

That looks good... I used to eat Manicotti often on the cruise ship, where I used to work... your post brought back my memories :)


December 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee and Vanilla

Thanks, Peter! It seems the information is all over the map on the manicotti vs. cannelloni question but two themes have emerged: the size of the shell and the type of sauce. Several sites mention that cannelloni uses bechamel. I've also heard the shell is slightly smaller and it's cooked longer. I have no expertise in this though -- it would be interesting to get to the bottom of it!

Thanks, Coffee and Vanilla! Seems like an appropriate dish for a cruise ship -- it can definitely feed the masses!

January 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

That's the way a table should look! Good food and people all around! Very very nice photo :)

January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMaryann

Cannelloni vs manicotti..Canelloni is smaller and usually filled with meat ;)

January 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMaryann

This whole post just made me smile! Jimmy 'Meatballs" - LOL. I can't wait to try the red sauce. We have an Eyetalian friend who won't share his family sauce, the stinker.

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSusanQ

Thanks, Susan! Let me know what you think if you try the red sauce. The trick to taking it from good to great is letting it sit over night in the fridge and then re-heating it. Then it's perfecto.

February 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Im supposed to make manicotti for my husband's family "Italian Feast" this sunday (15 Italian kids in his family!!) and I'm scared! This looks like a good start, though. WIsh me luck!

March 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterannie

Annie --This version is a meat-heavy, main course version of manicotti, which has always been a crowd pleaser at our house. If you're going to prepare it as a pasta course, simply eliminate the meat from the ricotta filling and cut back or eliminate the meat in the sauce. Good luck! Cheers, Angela

March 13, 2010 | Registered CommenterAngela

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