2009 March: Oh Man!

Manicotti gets a bad wrap. Often misunderstood as being labor and time intensive, in reality it’s an easy-to-prepare, versatile dish that appeals to many discerning palates.

The term “manicotti” actually refers to a large, tubular pasta shape. The traditional manicotti entrée stuffs a ricotta and cheese mixture into those pasta tubes or wraps pasta sheets around. It’s then covered with tomato sauce and baked.

2009 March: Oh Man!Mark Sciortino, chef/owner of Marco’s Italian Restaurant in Buffalo, New York, grew up eating his grandma’s manicotti. “Every Sunday we’d go to her house, and she’d make it,” he says.

When Sciortino opened his restaurant 20 years ago he transplanted grandma’s recipe –– and grandma –– to the kitchen. “My grandmother made the batter, shells and put it together. We baked it,” he says. “When she passed away, my mom took over. She’s a grandmother now, so it truly is a grandmother’s recipe.”

For the dish, fresh pasta shells encase a ricotta, Romano, garlic, basil, parsley, eggs and pepper mixture. The rolled crepes bake seam side down between layers of tomato sauce.

“It’s not a hard recipe,” says Sciortino. “Although, if you don’t have the right touch, the shells can come out too thick. You want a thin crepe that’s nice and airy. Think of it like a pancake, and roll the batter all the way around the sauté pan. The further the batter spreads out on the pan’s edge the thinner your crepe will be.”

It’s easy to bake large amounts of manicotti at one time. “Just layer it in a baking pan like you’re preparing lasagna. Put tomato sauce between each layer,” recommends Sciortino. Food cost-wise Sciortino admits that increased dairy prices have raised his food cost to 17 to 19 percent. “It’s not outrageous,” he says. “You make money with it. It’s also more cost effective than, say, lasagna because you don’t have meat, and manicotti appeals to vegetarian diners.”

What Sciortino really saves is labor. “The prep is so simple. We make the shells ahead of time. Then stack it in Tupperware until service,” he says.

Manicotti has no limits. Consider stuffing it with a blend of cheeses including mozzarella, Parmesan, Asiago, goat or bleu. Pack manicotti with sausage, ground beef, grilled chicken or roasted vegetables. It also pairs well with tomato cream, marinara, Alfredo or white sauce.

Rob Evans, owner of Romio’s Pizza & Pasta in Moorpark, California, (Romio’s is a 15-unit franchise with operations in California, Oregon and Washington) takes a Greek approach to this Italian dish. Spinach manicotti is filled with spinach, ricotta, crushed red pepper and feta. Evans covers pasta rolls with shredded mozzarella and housemade marinara and bakes in a conveyer belt oven at 550 F for about six minutes.

“The feta adds a distinct taste. You get the buttery velvetiness of mozzarella with the feta’s tart saltiness,” he says.

Evans estimates a 35 percent food cost for the dish, but says that’s comparable to other baked pastas on the menu. “Because we use expensive ingredients it does have a higher food cost,” he says. “We just increased our menu prices $2 to compensate for increase costs in dairy, flour and gas surcharges.”

He’s contemplating adding shrimp to manicotti this summer and pairing it with a garlic cream lemon sauce.

Salvatore’s Pizza and Pasta, in Hoover and Inverness, Alabama, successfully takes creative liberties with its basic manicotti parmigiana (two shells stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella, covered in tomato sauce and mozzarella). In addition to manicotti parmigiana, Salvatore’s menus manicotti with spinach, mushroom marinara parmigiana; manicotti with mushroom Alfredo (manicotti covered with mushrooms and housemade Alfredo); and manicotti chicken pesto marinara (manicotti covered with grilled chicken, pesto and marinara sauces and mozzarella).

Walter Caron, Salvatore’s manager, likes pairing manicotti with different sauces since sauces are already on-hand, and it lets guests sample different flavor profiles.

“The marinara/pesto manicotti is fabulous,” says Caron. “Some people find pesto overbearing. This way the marinara cuts the pesto taste, and the pesto cuts the marinara taste. It’s an awesome combination.”

At Mexi-Italia, inside Circus Circus Hotel in Las Vegas, executive chef Bob O’Brien builds manicotti with a mixture of ricotta, shredded mozzarella, Parmesan, salt, garlic, white pepper, chopped fresh spinach and egg. Each roll is baked in a 375 F oven for ten minutes and is covered top-to-bottom with fresh marinara and topped with shredded mozzarella.

“We used to make the pasta fresh, but now we use Barilla,” he says. “When we started pushing 1,200 covers a day, it was too hard to keep the pasta consistent.” O’Brien admits some guests aren’t familiar with the dish. After trying it, they become fans. “It’s very affordable and good for the price,” he says.?

Marco’s Gramma’s Manicotti
Courtesy of Mark Sciortino, chef/owner, Marco’s Italian Restaurant Yield: 15 servings

Batter
8 eggs
1 stick butter
4 cups milk
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt

Filling
5 pounds ricotta
1 cup Romano cheese
1 teaspoon fresh chopped garlic
1 tablespoon fresh chopped basil
1 tablespoon fresh chopped curly parsley
3 eggs 1 teaspoon black pepper
12 ounces tomato sauce parsley for garnish
1 ounce of shredded mozzarella In a large bowl, beat eggs until fluffy.

In a large bowl, beat eggs until fluffy. Melt butter and add 2 cups of milk. Add butter/milk mixture to eggs. Using a mixer, add flour and remaining 2 cups of milk and salt. Mix until creamy. Add more milk if mixture becomes too thick. Create a crepe by pouring a 2-ounce ladle of batter into a 10- inch non-stick pan. Flip only once. Cool finished crepes on wax paper. Mix all filling ingredients in a large bowl. Scoop 2 to 3 tablespoons of filling mixture into each crepe. Place 6 ounces of tomato sauce on a baking pan. Place filled and rolled shells seam side down and cover with 6 ounces of tomato sauce. Bake 30-40 minutes at 350F. At service, top with parsley and shredded mozzarella.

Melanie Wolkoff Wachsman is a freelance writer in Louisville, Kentucky. She covers food, business and lifestyle trends.