The noodles in this Italian dish are made from scratch and worth the work
Longtime Dickinson resident Esther Arnona-Louviere grew up hearing the stories about her Italian ancestors, their immigration to America and the adventures they encountered along the way.
One in particular stands out, she said.
“So many relatives got word that the land around Dickinson was a lot like Sicily,” Arnona-Louviere said. “In 1898, my great-great-grandparents, Salvatore and Margherita Mandola, came to America to live with their daughter, Petronella, my great-grandmother. Upon arriving in New York, communication was almost impossible because they only spoke Italian.
“The train made many stops along the way and one of the stops was Dickinson, but the conductor wouldn’t let them off the train as their tickets were for Galveston. By the time they finally arrived at the Dickinson depot, there was no one to meet them. Lost and unable to speak English, they started walking down the road to a row of houses. Margherita saw a quilt hanging on a clothesline in the backyard of one of the houses and recognized it as one she had made for her daughter Petronella.”
Arnona-Louviere treasures such stories, is proud of her heritage and often reminisces about growing up surrounded by so many great cooks.
“I’d drag a stool up to the stove and watch my grandmother make her pasta by hand, laying dish towels out, cutting the pasta into strips and letting them dry on the dish towels,” she said. “It was hard to learn their recipes because they never wrote anything down. They made everything from scratch with no measurements. After I got married, I called my mom on the phone for recipes, but just like my grandmother, not much had been written down.”
Now that Arnona-Louviere has mastered the craft, she always has important staples on hand.
“I’m never without Italian seasoning, cans of tomato sauce and Italian cheeses, like blocks of Romano and Parmesan Reggiano that I grate myself,” she said. “My favorite quick snack is to take a small piece of bread, add some olives and top with Italian cheese.”
Arnona-Louviere likes to observe St. Joseph’s Day, celebrated on March 19, and has fond memories of decorating the St. Joseph’s Altar at her church.
“We would spend weeks making food and building the altar full of food that would feed people for free,” she said. “We no longer do it at the church, but in relatives’ homes now. I make pasta sauce and cucidati (fig cookies) and everyone brings their specialties.”
Arnona-Louviere has made many authentic Italian dishes over the years, but always reverts to the ones that speak to her, she said.
“But my favorite is manicotti,” she said. “Also known as cannelloni in Italy, my pasta noodles are made from scratch and are basically crêpes, which is the way my mom made hers. It’s a bit time-consuming, but the outcome is delicious, and every time I make it, it’s a hit with everyone.”
For the pasta:
3 cups flour
3 cups water
Pinch of salt
Line countertop with wax paper. Beat eggs, add flour, water and salt in bowl. Refrigerate for 1 hour. Remove from refrigerator and stir until mixed. Heat a large non-stick skillet on medium high heat.
With a ladle, gradually pour a portion into heated skillet in a circular motion until it’s the size of a large pancake. Cook until done, 1 to 2 minutes on each side as they cook quickly; then slide from the pan onto wax paper.
For the filling:
1 large container of whole milk ricotta cheese
¼-½ teaspoon salt
1-2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, chopped
¾-1 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
2 eggs, beaten
Spoon filling into 24 manicotti crêpes and roll up.
For the sauce:
2 large cans crushed tomatoes (preferably organic Muir Glen)
1 medium onion, chopped
6-8 garlic cloves, chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt, red pepper flakes, sugar to taste
Generous amount of fresh basil, chopped
Sauté onion in olive oil till transparent; add garlic. Add crushed tomatoes, salt, red pepper flakes, sugar and basil. Simmer 3 to 4 hours.
For the meatballs:
1 pound ground sirloin
1 pound ground chuck
1 small onion, chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, chopped
Salt and pepper
½-1 cup Progresso breadcrumbs or make your own from Italian bread
½ cup Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated
Mozzarella cheese and fresh chopped basil (for topping only; see assembly instructions)
Mix all ingredients, except mozzarella cheese and basil; then fry or bake meatballs or drop them raw into the simmering sauce until done. Mash them into sauce.
Add some of the meat sauce to the bottom of a baking pan (usually takes 2 pans). Line manicotti side by side until pan is full. Add remaining meat sauce on top.
Last, cover with 1 cup grated mozzarella cheese (per pan) and bake at 350 F for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and top with freshly chopped basil.