My mother’s manicotti – as I remember and as found in her much used and spattered “The Talisman Italian Cookbook” – was pretty basic.
Fresh (or dried) pasta, in 4” x 6” rectangles, cooked briefly then filled with ricotta and rolled into tubes, covered with tomato sauce, fresh basil and grated romano or parmesan cheese and baked in a hot oven for about 10-15 minutes. Easy on a week night. Lighter and much, much easier than lasagne.
It was not until I began traveling regularly to Milan that I discovered what I knew as “manicotti” in New York – standard not only in my mother’s kitchen but in most local Italian-American deli’s - was “cannelloni” or “crespelli” in Italy; plates still hot from the oven placed on crisp white tablecloths in almost endless variations. With delicate crepes instead of pasta, with spicy sausage or braised beef/veal/pork instead of cheese, with a richly flavoured bechamel sauce instead of tomato. Not unlike the “manicotti” I knew in New York, but infinitely more enticing.
But the name? In New York in 1915 a young immigrant from a small fishing village in Italy opened his own pasta company. Among the various shapes produced was “manicotti” or “little muff” (perhaps inspired by the muffs women then wore to keep their hands warm in the winter), a large dried pasta tube conveniently ready made for cannelloni. It was hugely popular and, as Arthur Schwartz suggests in his delightful “New York City Food,” the success of Emanuele Ronzoni’s invention (and pasta company) may be responsible for the use of the name “manicotti” among New York’s large Italian-American community. NOTE: Arthur has his own, excellent. recipe for Manicotti in "New York City Food."
This week I had a great longing for “manicotti” (or cannelloni, crespelli, whatever). And while both Marcella Hazan and The Silver Spoon offer excellent possibilities, I went back to my youth when in both London and New York a new wave of young Italian restauranteurs transformed eating out as we then knew it - Alvaro’s, San Lorenzo, Club dell’Aretusa in London and in New York, Alfredo Viazzi’s “Trattoria de Alfredo”, all attracting a glittering fashion/film/theatre/publishing/finance crowd.
“Alfredo Viazzi’s Italian Cooking”, published in 1979, captures the kind of freshly interpreted traditional Italian dishes that at the time seemed both exciting and new. Carpacio (with Alfredo’s own spicy sauce which was James Beard’s favourite), bagna couda (which I ate at San Lorenzo for the first time), and Cacciucco alla livornese (a delicious fish stew).
Ripieno per Manicotti
(edited to serve 2-3 rather than 6-8)
1/2 pound whole milk ricotta
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/8 pound prosciutto, chopped coarsely
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
salt and pepper
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 ½ tablespoons heavy cream (or milk)
1 egg yolk
4 dried lasagne pasta sheets or, (ideally) 4 sheets fresh pasta, approximately 3 ½ x 7”
1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 ½ cups tomato sauce (see below)
FOR TOMATO SAUCE:
Soften 1 large chopped garlic clove and one chopped medium onion in olive oil. Add a fresh or dried bay leaf and one tin of tomatoes (whole or chopped). Rinse tin with a little water and add this to the pan. Bring to a simmer and cook gently for about half an hour. Crush the cooked tomatoes with a fork and set sauce aside until needed. (Note this can be done earlier in the day or the night before.)
Combine ricotta, all but 1 tablespoon parmesan cheese, prosciutto, parsley, salt and pepper, nutmeg cream (or milk) and beaten egg yolk. Mix well.
Cook pasta in a big pot of salted, boiling water (add a few spoons of oil so pasta sheets to not stick together). Drain carefully and cool under running water. Arrange the pasta sheets on a work surface (I use a big chopping block) and place 1 ½ tablespoons of filling on the centre of each. Bring two ends together, slightly overlapping, to make a roll.
Preheat oven to 180C. Spread half the tomato sauce on the bottom of a baking dish large enough to hold the manicotti. Place manicotti on top, seam down, cover with remaining sauce. Sprinkle with remaining grated Parmesan cheese. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until bubbling and hot.