Editor’s note: Peter Francis Battaglia doesn’t just cook, he teaches. When I couldn’t find my mom’s manicotti crepe recipe I asked Peter for help. He gave me the recipe and a lesson. It brought back memories and I noticed the fillings and the methods are the same. Thank you, Peter for helping me fill another page in my mother’s handwritten cookbook and giving me the last piece of her manicotti puzzle. — Denise
Making Manicotti with Pancetta Tomato Sauce
By Peter Francis Battaglia
This is my all-time favorite, then good cheese ravioli, lasagne, and cavatelli. Truly, there are no pastas I don’t like; but manicotti has a special place in my heart. Growing up, when these were being made my anticipation went through the roof. Back then manicotti were always reserved for a special holiday or celebration.
I had the craving on a recent Saturday night; but we had already eaten. So, around 10 p.m. I went to the kitchen, and started making them for Sunday dinner. Crazy? Maybe.
It’s worth the effort. Remember, as with all good things, have patience. It’s work, not really hard work. Let’s face it you’re not installing new kitchen cabinets here. But this kind of work will reward everyone with a spectacular feast – Southern Italian style.
Make the sauce first. You can make your favorite or usual sauce, but for the love of all that is good in the world, don’t use jarred sauce. You can make it yourself.
I opened the fridge and took a nice piece of Pancetta. Pancetta is an Italian form of bacon, cured, but not smoked. You cannot use smoked bacon in a recipe that calls for pancetta. The flavor is not the same and will alter the end result.
If Pancetta is unavailable, don’t panic. Every supermarket is carrying it now, but, if you happen to live in an area where it is unavailable, use salt pork. Dice about 1 cup of the pancetta and sauté in a large pot with some fruity olive oil. Let it sizzle for about 8 minutes. Add 1 large or 2 small onions, finely diced. Let this simmer in the oil for about 20 minutes so that the onions sweeten and meld with the pancetta flavor. This is a crucial step in creating this particular sauce. If you are using salt pork – after the onions have started cooking for about 5 minutes — add a splash of wine and a good grinding of black pepper. This will make the salt port take on the flavors of pancetta. It works.
Now add two cans of San Marzano good tomatoes that you have crushed with your hands. Add a couple of torn basil leaves, taste for seasoning, and let this cook for at least 1 hour. You will be happy with the concentrated flavor the onions and pancetta give the sauce.
While the sauce is cooking you make the manicotti. The Battaglia-Scaramuzzi family recipe (that would be my Mom’s way of making them) is crepe-style. I find the manicotti made with macaroni or pasta dough – whether it be fresh or dried – very foreign. I think cannelloni which are quite similar, are made with a fresh pasta dough. I also don’t like a well-known “Italian” franchise restaurant’s mentality of taking a dish and embellishing it with extraneous ingredients.
Manicotti should be stuffed with a mixture of ricotta, mozzarella, pecorino romano, black pepper, and fresh parsley, with an egg to help bind the filling. Serve it all with a tasty sauce – tomato please, never Vodka sauce. Garnished with shrimp? No. Why the tirade? This latest restaurant’s disaster pairs a ricotta stuffed manicotti with a cream (OMG) sauce and shrimp. What? I’m just sayin …
Making the Crepes
OK, let’s start making the crepes. Sift 1 1/2 cups flour into a bowl. Add 3 well-beaten eggs, 1 teaspoon olive oil, pinch of salt, 2 cups of milk. Somehow this always changes, so be sure it has the consistency of a loose pancake batter, which hovers between thin and not so thin.
Rub a non-stick small omelette pan with olive oil. Place it over medium heat for 5 minutes. Now ladle a thin layer of the crepe batter into the pan, smoothing it out with the bottom of the ladle. It should be thin, but not transparent. Cook for 2 minutes on each side and continue making the crepes until the batter is used. This should yield about 20 crepes. Stack them on a place and move to one side. Let cool for about 1/2 hour.
In a large bowl add one-half pound small diced mozzarella, 2 teaspoons freshly minced flat-leaf parsley, 1 beaten egg, 1 cup pecorino romano, lots of fresh ground black pepper, One-and-one-half pounds good ricotta. Polly-O is a good supermarket brand, but, if possible get fresh ricotta from an Italian Store, or Salumeria. It makes for a heavenly manicotti. Fresh ricotta just can’t be beat.
Preparing the Manicotti
Add some sauce to the bottom of a baking pan. Take a crepe and put abut 3 tablespoons of the filling down the center. Roll it up and place into pan. Do not stack them on top of each other. One layer only.
Just a suggestion (not really), use Polly-O whole milk mozzarella. Fresh has too much liquid and it makes the filling watery. Top the finished tray with sauce and add some grated pecorino.
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Cover the tray with foil and bake for 1 hour. Let the manicotti sit for a good 5-10 minutes before serving. The foil prevents the heat from drying the manicotti and scorching the top. Too much cooking and the tomato gets bitter. When serving, figure at least 2 manicotti per person, so make enough. This is an easy recipe to double.
Those of you who want to wow your family and friends with a homemade pasta dish, this is just the one to try. You can make the shells and sauce a day or two before serving. You can even roll and stuff them, but you must cook them less than 24 hours after you they are stuffed. Just tightly cover and refrigerate. Serve with a meat ball or sausage – or not. Just one makes a great starter to an Italian meal, or use it as the entrée.
Cannelloni I like with a veal and spinach stuffing, asiago cheese, onion, garlic, carrot, celery. Oops, that’s another recipe. Sorry. Once I get started, I just want to keep going. Drop me a comment if you try this!