Manicotti in many regions of Italy are actually called Crespelles. They are a perfect light start as a “primo” (first) course for a special Italian meal.
In America, manicotti are often made with pasta tubes. But for true manicotti made the Italian way, the shells should be light crepes, not made from boiled pasta. Cheese or meat stuffings enclosed in pasta are called Cannelloni in Italy.
The best recipe for Italian crepes comes from Marcella Hazan. In her book, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, she includes a variety of recipes for stuffing crepes. I use her crepe recipe for Manicotti, but the Marinara Sauce and Ricotta Filling are my long time standard recipes.
To make this dish, you will need:
8 Crepes for a main dish or 4 Crepes for a first course
Swiss Chard or Spinach Ricotta Filling
Makes at least 8 crepes
1 cup milk
3/4 cup all-purpose flour (gluten-free flour also works)
1/8 teaspoon salt
Butter for crepe pan
To make the crepes:
Add the flour gradually to the milk with a whisk in a medium bowl with a cover. Strain the mixture through a sieve to avoid any lumps. Return the mixture to the bowl..
Add the eggs one at a time and beat well after each addition. Add the salt.
Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Heat the crepe pan and butter the pan.
Pour a scant ¼ cup of batter into the hot pan. Tilt the pan around with a circular motion so that the batter thins out and forms a round crêpe about the size of the pan. Cook until the edges of the crêpe become whitish and the inner portion yellow and partially solid.
Using a spatula, turn the crepe over and cook briefly (about 30 seconds).
Remove to a plate to cool. Repeat with the remaining batter, buttering the pan for each crepe. Place a sheet of wax paper between the layers to keep them from sticking together.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 (28-ounce) cartons Pomi finely chopped tomatoes
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
½ teaspoon black pepper, plus more as needed
4 fresh basil leaves, minced
Heat the oil in a large saucepan with a cover. Add the garlic and onion. Sauce for 2-3 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients. Simmer the sauce with the cover ajar for 1 1/2 hours or until thickened.
Swiss Chard and Ricotta Filling
2 cups cooked (with garlic and olive oil) Swiss Chard or spinach, squeezed dry
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese, plus extra for baking
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese, plus extra for baking
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
Combine the filling ingredients. Cover and refrigerate until ready to assemble the manicotti.
To assemble the Manicotti:
Heat the oven to 375 degrees F and lightly brush 4 individual baking dishes with olive oil.
Spread about 4 tablespoons of the filling down the center of a crepe. Roll it up and place it, seam-side-down, in one of the baking dishes. Repeat with the remaining crepes and filling, placing one or two filled crepes in each baking dish. Top lightly with marinara sauce spreading it evenly over the manicotti, sprinkle with Parmesan and shredded mozzarella cheese. Bake the manicotti for 30 minutes.