madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


meat and spinach cannelloni

authentic Italian cannelloni, a feast

Warning: mistreated recipe! If you have any intention of using those chewy curly no-boil lasagna,  lumpia/wanton wrappers, manicotti tubes, tortilla, frozen crepes or other horrors please don’t even read this recipe. In fact, you might want to go out for dinner or make mac n’ cheese.

Like lasagna, this is a labor-intensive pasta recipe. It’s a dish of sublime goodness which deserves to be revered and prepared with loving care for the appropriate (grand) occasion. The effort will be totally worthy, I promise you.

The success of this dish is based on high-quality ingredients, a restrained amount of sauce, a relatively dry but wonderfully savory filling. By the time it is ready to eat, the pasta should remain al dente.


  • 700 gr (forty 6- by 4-inch) fresh pasta rectangles or thin dry lasagna noodles
  • for soffritto: 1 onion, 1  celery rib, 1 carrot, all finely chopped
  • 700 gr (1.5 lb) good quality ground red meat. I use a mixture of pork and beef.
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 200 gr (7 oz)  sliced ham, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 500 gr (1 lb.) fresh spinach, blanched, dried and chopped
  • 60 gr (2 oz) finely grated Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano plus two tablespoon for sprinkling.
  • 350 gr mozzarella or mild cow’s-milk cheese, sliced
  • 2/3 cup Bechamel sauce
  • 1.5 lt (6 cups) basic tomato sauce flavored with a handful of basil leaves


  1. Make tomato sauce and Bechamel
  2. Blanch spinach
  3. Slice ham, cheese and soffritto vegetables
  4. Make filling
  5. Blanch pasta sheets
  6. Assemble the cannelloni (see the full process here)
  7. Bake

If you use your own pasta sheets you will need to triple my basic pasta dough recipe. Make them the day before, let them dry completely, covered with a thick kitchen towel so they will not curl up and break.  Storing at room temperature is OK for one day, otherwise freeze the individual sheets and keep in a freezer box until needed.

As an alternative buy the thinnest possible lasagna noodles. Preparing the tomato sauce and blanched spinach in advance also helps with time management.

To make filling:

In a shallow heavy-bottomed pan saute onion, carrot and celery with two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. This is called a soffritto. When the vegetables are translucent, increase heat, add ground meat and saute quickly until just starting to brown. Deglaze with white wine, season with salt, nutmeg and black pepper and set aside to cool.

In a food processor, pulse ham, spinach and grated Parmesan until finely ground. Add to cooked ground meat together with 2-3 tablespoon tomato sauce. Do not use frozen spinach, they tend to retain too much water. If the filling is too moist the cannelloni will fall apart during cooking.

To assemble the cannelloni:

Bring a large pot of salted water to rolling boil, add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Boil pasta 10 pieces at a time in a large pot, stirring lightly to separate, until just tender, about 1/2 minute for fresh pasta or about 3 minutes for dry noodles. Drain in a colander. Using thick rubber gloves gently transfer the pasta sheets on a clean work-top and lay them flat to cool. Preheat oven to  200 °C (400°F).

Spread about 2 tablespoon filling in a line along the diagonal of 1 pasta rectangle, top with a slice of mozzarella…..

homemade lasagna sheets used for cannelloni ready to be rolled

……then roll up to enclose filling.

cannelloni rolled nice and tight, ready to be placed in a baking dish

Transfer them to a baking dish arranging snugly in 1 layer. Spread cannelloni with a thin layer of tomato sauce, drizzle with Bechamel and sprinkle with 2 tablespoon  grated cheese. Bake in the middle of the oven until the sauce is bubbling, about 25 minutes.

Let them stand 5 minutes before serving. Cannelloni are  ideal to serve a crowd, each piece just lifts out of the baking dish in a perfectly sized portion. In addition they can be frozen uncooked. Just make sure to thaw them completely before baking.

Serves 12-15.

heaven in a roll


I’m going eggplant

Eggplant, aubergine, has been around the Mediterranean for more than 500 years. No wonder this luxurious vegetable of Indian origin became a staple of Sicilian cooking. In a land too dry and warm to support large-scale cattle breeding, meat was an expensive rarity. Peasants in Southern Italy lived on a basic diet of olive oil, pasta, cheese and vegetables, occasionally fish. Eggplant, enriched by cooking in oil, must have been a welcome addition to their simple dishes.

Later in history some unknown gastronomic hero conceived the heavenly combination of tomato and eggplants. Fried eggplants are still used for a number of spectacular – and virtually vegetarian – dishes like eggplant parmesan,  caponata, pasta incasciata. I promise recipes for all these.

In my memory, the aroma of fried eggplants permeates images of luminous Sicilian summers. Memories of  green shutters closed against the heat. Tiny whitewashed alleys where you don’t see anybody but someone is cooking something magical somewhere. Memories of fragrant spaghetti with the sweetest tomato sauce piled high with slabs of golden aubergines and a sprinkle of baked ricotta, pasta alla Norma.

Yes, you can use grilled eggplants instead of fried, I know. But for a real bite of Sicily, please just try, even if only once. Fry and be happy.


home-made pizza

a slice of heaven

a slice of heaven

HOMEMADE PIZZA. In Italy, the term pizza is generally used to indicate a flat bread which can be stuffed or topped with all sorts of ingredients.  In Central Italy, pizza is also  a panettone-shaped bread traditionally made for Easter.  No news so far, all Mediterranean populations have been eating flat breads for at least 3000 years.

Things changed when, at the end of 1700, someone in Naples had the brilliant idea to top the pizza with tomatoes and invented the world’s number one most popular food, the pizza Napoletana.

The recipe of the traditional Neapolitan pizza  is now protected by a law dictating the ingredients and methods of preparation. A traditional pizza Margherita should be made with a 10 hours leavened dough, hand rolled, topped with fresh crushed tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil and basil and cooked for 60 to 90 seconds at 485 °C (905 °F) in a wood oven.

That’s it, no pineapple.

My pizza is not a Neapolitan pizza as the above method cannot simply be reproduced with home equipment and schedule. It’s a recipe lovingly developed by my mother over years of experiments in her small electrical oven. It’s the best home pizza one can get in a relatively short time. Really, this time I will not be modest.


for pizza dough:

  • 4 gr. (1 teaspoon) active dry yeast
  • 250 ml (1 cup) warm water
  • 450 gr (4 cups) all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

for topping:

  • 300 gr (9 ounces) fresh mozzarella, cubed
  • 2 flat anchovy fillets cut in approx. 10 small pieces
  • 1 400 gr (12 ounces) tin diced tomato
  • 1 teaspoon dry oregano
  • 1 tablespoon EVO oil

Sprinkle the yeast over the water. Let it stand 1 minute, or until the yeast is creamy. Stir until the yeast dissolves. In a food processor, combine flour, olive oil, sugar and salt. Mix briefly. Add the yeast mixture and mix at maximum speed until a soft dough forms. Alternatively mix ingredients by hand in a large bowl, then turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding more flour if necessary, until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.

Lightly coat a pizza pan with ½ olive oil and ½ sunflower oil. Place the dough on a table, and flatten the dough with a rolling pin until it is about ½ cm (1/4 inch) thin. Place the pan in a warm, draft-free place, cover with a tea towel and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1/2 an hour.

While the pizza is raising, warm up your oven at maximum temperature. Allow enough time for the oven to stay at maximum temperature for at least 15 min before cooking the pizza

Distribute the mozzarella cubes, anchovy fillets and tomato over the pizza dough. Sprinkle with dry oregano, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Drizzle with EVO oil and cook in the high part of the oven for 8 min or until golden below and around the sides.

Should you have more time and are able to plan your pizza dinner one day ahead, please try the slow dough version.


warm chickpea and arugula salad

crunchy, lemony and soft at the same time, a garbanzo bean salad

crunchy and soft at the same time, a garbanzo bean salad

INSALATA TIEPIDA DI CECI E RUCOLA. Ancient Romans, rich or poor, were quite fond of chickpeas and consumed them frequently dressed in olive oil. Rucola – also called rocket or arugula – is cultivated only since a couple of decades but it has been collected in the wild as an edible herb for many centuries.


  • 250 gr (approx. 1 and 1/2 cups) cooked chickpeas
  • 6 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • a couple of handfuls rucola leaves  washed and drained
  • 1 garlic clove finely chopped or minced with a garlic press
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon aged balsamic vinegar (optional)

If using canned chickpeas, rinse and drain.

In a shallow saucepan warm olive oil and garlic until fragrant. Add chickpeas and cumin, simmer slowly until warm. Switch off heat, add tomatoes and rucola, season and transfer in a bowl to serve immediately. If the dish has to wait, cover to keep warm and add the rucola only before serving. Drizzle with good quality balsamic vinegar if desired.

Serves 2 as an appetizer or vegetarian main.

Optional: to make the salad more substantial, cook 125 gr./one cup farro in boiling water. Drain, toss with 2 tablespoon EVO oil and add to the chick peas. Serves 4



In net contrast to everything stated yesterday about sauce and Italians eating light meals, today we polished up a whole  pan of  glorious cannelloni al ragù. It was not a holiday, but we innkeepers must work throughout most of the occasions when others celebrate holidays. As a consequence we have to nominate a grey, cold and boring winter day as “special”and cook something worth a Christmas party.

To prepare good lasagne, cannelloni or a heart lifting plate of tagliatelle, one needs a good ragù.  NOT like that one in this picture please. More like in the picture below.

homemade egg fettuccine,perfect with a slow cooked pork ragu

homemade egg pappardelle, perfect with a slow cooked pork ragù

Then one needs time, good meat, good tomatoes, good EVO oil. I use finely minced pork neck, but beef or a mixture of meats is fine. My ragù is Southern in style so it has relatively more tomato than meat. I use little EVO oil for cooking but I drizzle a bit on the ready dish so the oil enhances the flavor of the sauce. I make a huge pot and freeze it in batches, it keeps perfectly.


  • 2.1 kg bottled tomato puree equivalent to 5 14-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes roughly chopped
  • 300 gr./ 10 ounces ground pork meat
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 clove
  • 1/2 cup white wine

Soften the onion in 3 tablespoon olive oil over low heat. Use a covered, low, heavy bottom pan. When the onion is translucent but not caramelized, increase the heat and add the minced meat stirring quickly until light brown. Deglaze with the wine. Add the tomatoes with their juices, the bay leaf, the clove and cover again. Cook over the lowest possible heat for at least 1 and ½ hours, but up to three hours is desirable. Season with salt and black pepper.

Serve ragù with pasta or other starchy foods that have a rough surface, so the sauce does not slip away from it. Therefore, besides lasagne and cannelloni, use with ravioli, egg noodles of all sizes, gnocchi, polenta. Preferably do not use with spaghetti, penne and other smooth pasta.

Makes 2.5 liter (2.6 quart)

Fettuccine Al Ragu on Foodista


summer and fall pasta

PORCINI AND SWEET PEPPER SAUCE. This is a variation of the basic tomato sauce using the last good summer peppers  and the first porcini available in the fall. Vegetables are added to the onion and slowly stewed for a long time like a creamy compote.

lumachine pasta in a sweet pepper and porcini sauce

lumachine pasta in a sweet pepper and porcini sauce


  • One 400 gr. (12 ounces)  can diced tomato
  • 15 gr. (1/2 ounce)  dried porcini soaked in 2/3 cup lukewarm water
  • 2 large onions, thinly sliced
  • 2 red or yellow sweet peppers cut into 1 cm. (1/2 inch) wide, 4 cm. (2 inch) long strips
  • 3 tabsp heavy whipping cream
  • 400 gr. short pasta like penne, rigatoni or lumache ( or gluten-free alternatives)

Use a shallow, thick bottomed pan with a lid over low heat. Soften onion and sweet peppers in 2 tablespoon EVO  oil until soft and falling apart, about 30-45 min. When the mixture starts to dry out, add the soaked porcini with their water.  Simmer until the soaking water is completely reduced. Add the tomato and cook for additional 10 min. until slightly thickened. Add cream, but do not cook it. Use with short pasta with a sprinkle of chopped fresh parsley or basil, if desired. This sauce can be prepared ahead and frozen. Serves 4.


basic tomato sauce

Even though in Italy we have some of the best tomatoes in the world, good quality tomatoes are not available throughout the year. Canning tomatoes during peak production has been a long standing Italian tradition. When I was a kid we spent one week every August canning 200 kg/400 pounds of tomatoes for the winter.

Nowadays one can buy excellent preserved tomatoes. However,  to select a good product it is necessary to follow a few rules :

  1. Read the label. There should be no sugar added. Inferior quality tomatoes are sweetened to mask their unpleasant acidity and lack of flavor
  2. Texture. Puree, diced or simply peeled, preserved tomatoes should be thick, almost creamy. This way it is possible to cook them for the briefest time to keep a fresh taste or to use them for pizza without cooking them first.
  3. Plain. Do not buy tomatoes added with herbs or other condiments. Add the condiments yourself so you can control the quality. Cooked herbs loose most of their flavor anyway  and often only taste like hay!

The product below is only one of those I use on a regular basis, it is excellent but there are many others.

thick and sweet with no sugar added

a good tomato product: thick and sweet with no sugar added

Once you have your perfect tin of tomato and some good extra virgin olive oil you can prepare this lovely sauce


  • One 400 gr./12 ounces  can diced tomato
  • 2 tablespoon white wine
  • 1 medium size onion thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoon parsley, very finely chopped
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 300 gr. spaghetti, penne or other short pasta

Heat the oil in a pan, add the onion, cover and saute over slow fire until soft and slightly caramelized. Increase fire and, when the onion is sizzling, add white wine and reduce quickly. Lower fire again, stir in the chopped tomato, cover and cook for approx. 10 min until slightly thick.

Cook pasta al dente according to package instructions. Strain, stir in the fresh parsley, stir in the sauce and about one teaspoon EVO oil per person. Serve immediately with grated cheese on the side if desired.

You can substitute onion with garlic and parsley  with basil as in the fresh tomato sauce . Only use onion and garlic together if you want a sweeter taste. This is suitable e.g. to fish based sauces. Otherwise please only one species of herb at the time!

Serves 2-3.


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