At Lista’s Italian Cuisine we were known for our Lasagna but the menu also featured other stuffed and baked pasta dishes. One of my favorites was Baked Manicotti (manicotti al forno)… delicate pasta wrapped around creamy ricotta cheese, covered with sauce and mozzarella and baked until it was melt-in-your-mouth delicious!
Manicotti is often found in Italian-American restaurants and may be called manicotti or cannelloni interchangeably. Both these dishes are prepared in a similar fashion, typically a sleeve of pasta wrapped around a filling and baked with sauce.
Cannelloni (“large reeds” in Italian) are often sold in America as large dry pasta tubes that can be filled and baked — in Italy, the pasta is a typical blend of wheat flour, salt and water which traditionally was rolled into flat sheets, topped with filling, and then rolled up into a cylinder shape before baking. Cannelloni is from the Naples region of Italy, but types of cannelloni can be found in other countries as well.
Manicotti (“little sleeves” in Italian), on the other hand, are traditionally not a true pasta dish but authentic manicotti is made with a crepe and would be called a crespelle in Italy. Authentic manicotti are made with an egg rich crepe batter cooked in a traditional crepe pan and then filled and rolled like a burrito. Manicotti can also mean “cooked hands” in Italian — from cooks burning their fingers while handling the hot crepes. In America true manicotti or crespelle are not commonly found on menus. Now for me. growing up, cannelloni was always made with a meat filling, while manicotti was always filled with cheese (sometimes with spinach added).
At Lista’s we served a more traditional manicotti that was made with a lighter, egg based, crepe-like pasta. I can remember one of those Sunday afternoons when I was 12, working with Grandma Lista in the back kitchen, helping her make the crepes that would become those magnificent, cheese filled, delicacies we called manicotti. Although her original recipes are lost to time, I know it was basically 4 eggs, 1 cup water, 1 cup flour, and a pinch of salt — this was whisked together and then chilled. Grandma would then heat up her crepe pans and ladle some of the batter into each pan, give it a ‘swirl’ to evenly spread the batter and coat the entire pan, then briefly cook the crepe on one side (just until the tops were dry), then turn them onto sheets of waxed paper to cool. Once cooled, we would spoon the ricotta filling onto each crepe and roll them up to make the manicotti. The finished manicotti were then lined up in a baking pan that was coated with sauce, they were covered with more sauce and some Romano cheese and baked until hot and slightly browned, and ready to serve the hungry customers.
Since those Lista’s days, I have learned many “tricks of the trade” to make cooking and life easier… one of those “tricks” is to buy fresh pasta sheets at the grocery store and use them instead of the traditional crepes to make my manicotti. With that in mind, the recipe here is using the short cut of pre-made pasta sheets — but feel free to try your hand at the authentic crespelle method. And of course, you can use the dry pasta tubes if you’re so inclined (Tip: use a pastry bag or zip-top bag to pipe filling into tubes) or possibly use a Gluten Free pasta sheet if that’s what your family prefers.
Lista’s Baked Manicotti
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
2 lbs. Ricotta Cheese
1 cup Grated Romano Cheese
2 TBSP Chopped Parsley
1 tsp Fresh Ground Black Pepper
12 Fresh Pasta Sheets – cut in half
2-3 cups Prepared Pasta Sauce
1/4 cup Grated Romano Cheese
1 cup Shredded Mozzarella Cheese (optional)
Extra Pasta Sauce heated for serving (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Coat a 9×13 baking dish with cooking spray and spread 1 cup pasta sauce in the bottom, set aside.
3. For the filling: in a large mixing bowl thoroughly combine ricotta cheese, Romano cheese, eggs, parsley, and black pepper, set aside.
4. To assemble: Cut pasta sheets in half to form 24 squares. For each pasta square spoon about 3 tablespoons cheese filling across center and rolls the pasta around filling to make a cylinder. Place manicotti, seam side down, on top of sauce in the prepared baking dish. Continue making manicotti and laying them side by side (touching but not crowded) until the dish is full.
5. Pour remaining pasta sauce evenly over the prepared manicotti and sprinkle with the remaining Romano cheese (and mozzarella cheese if using). Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes until sauce is bubbling and cheese is lightly browned.
7. Serve 3-4 manicotti per person topped with additional heated pasta sauce if desired.
There you have it, Baked Manicotti alla Lista’s Italian Cuisine. This recipe is a basic cheese filled manicotti like we served at the restaurant. If you want to try something different add some chopped spinach to the cheese filling (Tip: one of those frozen boxes of chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry is just right) — or try topping the manicotti with a meat sauce made with 1/2 ground beef and 1/2 Italian sausage — another traditional touch is to bake the manicotti topped with a bechamel (white) sauce instead of tomato sauce… this is really nice when using the spinach and cheese filling. However you choose to make it, I hope you like the melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness of this fabulous Italian-American recipe.
Until next time remember, “The Sauce Make the Difference!”