Sometimes nothing hits the spot better than traditional pasta-based Italian-American cuisine. Such dishes truly have the ability to change your mood as they comfort you and wrap you in blankets of rich marinara and velvety ricotta.
After having moved to an area that is not serviced by the authentic New York/New Jersey-style Italian restaurant Vito’s on Jacksonville, Florida’s southside, I have moved more towards the preparation of classic Italian-American dishes at home because of the lack of solid Italian cuisine offerings in the immediate area. This has led to a revival of a classic dish that I have enjoyed cooking and serving since my childhood.
For this meal, the traditional dish we are taking a look at happens to be manicotti stuffed with ricotta and topped with rich marinara and shredded mozzarella. As I mentioned, this is a dish from my childhood, and each and every time that we prepare it in our home, I feel as though I am whisked away and transported back to the fond scenes from my childhood involving watching my mother prepare dinner. The kitchen would become the hub of all household activity as the meal was prepared with care, love, attention to detail, dedication, and even a bit of singing here and there. In carrying on the same method for preparing this wonderful dish, family traditions that began almost 30 years ago are able to persist to this very day. So, in a way, even though I love their authentic Italian cuisine, I have to say “thank you” to Vito’s for not delivering to my new neighborhood.
Best of all, though, this dish (like many pasta-based dishes) is relatively easy to make and has a pretty good amount of room for deviation. For instance, some people enjoy marinara sauce with a bit of kick. If this sounds like you, consider adding a half-teaspoonful of dry crushed red pepper flakes to the marinara as it is simmering. You can do this at just about any point during the sauce preparation, so long as you give it about 5 minutes for the heat of the pepper flakes to mingle and penetrate through the entirety of the sauce. If preparation time is not a factor, and you have extra time to make your own sauce, you can experiment with different spices and ingredients to put your own unique spin on classic marinara. However, for this dish, dressing up a jar of store-bought marinara does the job just fine. Depending on taste preferences, you can substitute classic marinara for just about any tomato-based pasta sauce.
So without further ado, here is what it takes to make this wonderful dish:
- 6 Pieces Large Manicotti or Large “Shell” Pasta
- 8 ounces of any brand Ricotta cheese
- 8 ounces of shredded mozzarella cheese
- 16 ounces of classic marinara sauce
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil (extra virgin optional)
- Italian breadcrumbs (Optional)
In a large saucepan, put water on the stove and bring to a boil. Simultaneously, in a smaller saucepan, pour in the marinara sauce and place on low-medium heat. Chop up the two garlic cloves very fine and thin (or press with a garlic press) and add to the sauce. At this point, you can include other spices such as the red pepper flakes mentioned above. Pour the olive oil into the sauce and stir. Finally, add several tablespoons of breadcrumbs to the sauce. This will slightly change the texture so that the sauce adheres to the pasta and is not left behind the plate. Then, stir, and place on simmer.
At this point, water should be boiling. Place the pasta in the boiling water and reduce heat to medium. Boil for 7-9 minutes or until pasta is “al dente,” which is the point where the pasta has absorbed enough water to have fully cooked but still retains a slight firmness. This is super important, as overcooked pasta will ruin the meal.
Now, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
Once the pasta has cooked, drain the water and place on a clean, flat preparation surface. Stuff each piece with ricotta cheese, making sure to pack in as much as you can in each shell. Next, arrange the stuffed pasta in a square casserole dish. Liberally pour the sauce over the shells until all are completely covered. Spread mozzarella over the entire dish in uniform layering.
At this point, the only thing left to do is bake the entree. Since you have already preheated the oven, go ahead and place the casserole dish on a middle rack and set a timer for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, you should notice that the mozzarella has melted to a uniform golden brown. If it is not yet golden brown, place back in the oven for 5 minutes at a time and remove when golden brown.
That’s all there is to it. You will want to allow about 5-10 minutes of cooling time after you remove from the oven before you serve the dish. The great thing about baked pasta dishes is that you do not even have to eat it right now. So long as you properly wrap it, you can freeze this wonderful meal and have it on hand for up to 6 months.
As prepared, this dish will serve a family of 4 with two shells left over for those who want a second helping. Pairing with garlic bread and a side dish of asparagus or a salad makes this a full-course meal that the entire family is sure to love.
Planning Ahead: The great thing about baked pasta dishes is that you do not even have to eat it right now. So long as you properly wrap it, you can freeze this wonderful meal and have it on hand for up to 6 months. If you have a vacuum sealer, you can pre-portion individual sizes and freeze. Then, you can bring the individually sealed portions to work and pop it in the microwave for a fast, easy, low-cost lunch,