Treat your family to the ultimate Italian comfort food with this easy manicotti recipe — jumbo tubes of pasta stuffed with an herb ricotta filling. To maximize flavor, I include a quick homemade marinara sauce that adds a rustic tomato taste to each serving.
A big casserole dish of manicotti can feed a hungry family and still have plenty of leftovers for the week. It’s also a cinch to prepare in advance so you can bake when ready for a no-hassle weeknight meal. This recipe is Italian-husband approved, and I think Jason’s grandma Rose would even say mangia!
In my years of testing, my scientific mind broke down the recipe into three parts: noodles, filling, sauce. Seems simple, yet each component needs careful preparation. It all starts with simmering the tomato sauce, which gives the flavor plenty of time to concentrate. I cook the pasta to al dente to ensure the pieces don’t break and then pipe in the creamy filling.
What is manicotti?
Manicotti are large tubes of Italian pasta, typically with ridges on the outside, making it easy to trap the flavorful sauce. The cheese-filled shells are nestled in tomato sauce, topped with mozzarella, and baked in a casserole dish.
To customize the recipe, this popular baked pasta can be stuffed with multiple kinds of cheese and the mixture can even include chopped vegetables like mushrooms and spinach. For a heartier meal, I would make this with a meat sauce consisting of Italian sausage, beef, or veal.
Three kinds of cheese in the filling
The hallmark of a tasty stuffed manicotti is its filling. For a unique combination of texture and flavor, I use three types of Italian cheeses. Ricotta cheese is the base, it has a hint of sweetness and creamy consistency. It’s also soft and gooey, making it easy to pipe.
Mozzarella is mild and stretchy, helping to bind the filling and provide the drool-worthy pull. Aged Parmesan cheese is hard, but it brings a nutty and sharp taste. To fill the manicotti shells, use a piping bag fitted with a large round tip (I use Ateco 806) or a large freezer bag with the small opening cut in one corner.
The secret ingredient: nutmeg
I worked at an Italian restaurant when I was in college, the head chef told me about a secret ingredient he adds to his cheese-stuffed pasta: nutmeg! Just a dash adds a hint of sweetness and depth. When paired with salt and pepper, you’ll be surprised how much it enhanced the taste.
Cooking the pasta
You need to cook the dried pasta before filling it. Boiling them in saltwater seasons the bland noodles. I cook them until al dente with some chew because they will continue to soften when baking in the oven. After removing from the boiling water, immediately rinse them with cold water to stop the cooking process so they don’t get mushy. Al dente noodles are easier to handle when adding the cheese.
Make a flavorful tomato sauce
For a quick sauce with intense tomato flavor, grab your can opener! A thick sauce that clings to the pasta shells needs tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, and diced tomatoes for little bursts of the fruit. But first, I always start by sauteing aromatics like chopped onions and garlic in olive oil and adding dried herbs. Then pour in the canned tomatoes and briefly simmer to meld all of the wonderful flavors together.
Place half of the sauce in a large baking dish followed by the pasta in a single layer, and then add the remainder on top. Sprinkle with mozzarella and bake until the cheese is melted and the pasta is hot and bubbly. Cooking the stuffed tubes in the sauce will infuse more flavor and tenderize the noodles a bit more.
Serve this with:
The difference between cannelloni and manicotti
They are both large tube-shaped pasta used for stuffing with a filling. The main difference comes down to texture. Manicotti has multiple ridges running down the length of the pasta. This makes for better grooves to grab the sauce. Cannelloni has a smooth surface and is thinner. If you are making fresh sheets of pasta, it’s easier to create cannelloni tubes.
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Manicotti with 3-Cheese Filling
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- 28 ounces crushed tomatoes
- 14.5 ounces diced tomatoes, do not drain
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 4 quarts water
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 pound manicotti
- 2 cups whole-milk ricotta cheese
- 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
- ½ cup grated parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley, plus more for garnish
- 1 tablespoon chopped basil, plus more for garnish
- 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Set the oven rack to the center position. Preheat to 400°F (204ºC).
- Heat olive oil in a large saucepan or dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, and Italian seasoning. Cook, stirring frequently for 3 minutes or until the onion is tender.
- Add tomato paste, stir and cook for 1 minute.
- Add crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, salt, and black pepper. Simmer and stir occasionally for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Boil the water in a large pot over high heat. Stir in the salt until dissolved. Add pasta, cook about 8 to 9 minutes until al dente, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
- Drain the pasta in a colander and rinse with cold water until the pasta is cool. Place manicotti in a single layer on a sheet pan. Set aside.
- Stir ricotta cheese, 1 cup mozzarella, Parmesan, egg, parsley, basil, salt, pepper, and nutmeg in a medium bowl until thoroughly combined.
- Transfer cheese filling into a large resealable plastic bag or piping bag fitted with a large round tip. Cut off one corner of the bag. Pipe the cheese mixture into each manicotti shell (about 10). Set filled pasta on a sheet pan.
- Evenly spread half of the tomato sauce on the bottom of a 13-inch by 9-inch baking dish. Add the stuffed manicotti in a single layer.
- Spread the remaining pasta sauce over the stuffed pasta.
- Evenly sprinkle 1 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese on top.
- Cover the manicotti with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for about 5 additional minutes until the sauce begins to bubble.
- Serve hot. Garnish with parsley, basil and parmesan cheese.
- Serving Size: One manicotti with sauce.
- Make-Ahead: The casserole can be assembled 3 days in advance. Bake the day you’re ready to serve.
- Storing and Reheating: The manicotti can be refrigerated for up to 5 days. Cover and reheat individual servings on high power in the microwave until warmed through, about 1 ½ to 2 minutes.
- Using store-bought sauce: Add 5 cups of marinara sauce to the sauteed onions, garlic, and Italian seasoning. Simmer for 10 minutes.
- Make a meat sauce: 1 pound of Italian sausage, ground chicken, turkey, or beef can be browned first and then simmered with the tomato sauce.
Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet. All nutritional information is based on estimated third-party calculations. Each recipe and nutritional value will vary depending on the brands you use, measuring methods, and portion sizes per household.
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