A Traditional Italian Sunday Dinner where extended family and friends gather around a large dining room table for platters of pasta, meats and delicious pastries may be starting to wane as older generations pass away and today’s young families seem to be too busy to sit down together for a meal and conversation. If you experienced one of those memorable meals, I’m sure you hope, as I do, that someone will step up and keep the wonderful tradition alive.
The traditional meal usually started around two in the afternoon when everyone was home from church and the “Sunday Gravy or Sauce” was ready. The slow simmered sauce, not a typical marinara sauce, was prepared with a variety of meats such as meatballs, sausages, braciola, pork ribs or other chunks of meat that gave the sauce a rich taste.
The meal would begin with an antipasto of deli meats, cheeses and marinated vegetables.
Afterwards, the meat that had been simmered in the sauce, might be served along with a simple lettuce and tomato salad dressed with olive oil and vinegar. Some families chose to eat the salad after the meat course.
To finish the meal, coffee, Italian pastries and other desserts would be placed on the table for everyone to enjoy while the conversations continued. My husband fondly remembers those Sunday meals with his family as a day of laughter and delicious food.
A traditional Italian dinner may be a distant memory for many but not in our home. Once or twice a year, my husband and I will invite a group of friends to our house for one of these traditional meals. At our latest dinner, we shared antipasto, four cheese and spinach stuffed shells, meatballs, both sweet and hot Italian sausages and coffee panna cotta and cookies to finish off our Italian dinner.
The stuffed shells were a lightened version of a recipe I created several years ago. They turned out excellent and I want to share the new recipe with you. What I like is that any leftovers are just as good a day or two later reheated so you can make a large platter.
Four Cheese And Spinach Stuffed Shells
Serves 8 – 10 generously.
- 4 Tbsp. Wondra flour (quick dissolving flour) or all-purpose flour
- 4 Tbsp. butter
- 2 1/2 c. milk, warmed (more if needed)
- 1/2 c. Locatelli Romano or Parmesan cheese, grated
- salt and pepper to taste
- 12 oz. box Jumbo pasta shells (contains about 40)*
- 5 oz. fresh baby spinach
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 1 lb. ricotta cheese (about 2 cups)
- 8 oz. mascarpone cheese
- 1 c. shredded fresh Mozzarella cheese, divided
- 1/4 c. grated Locatelli Romano or Parmesan cheese
- a pinch of nutmeg
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 egg, beaten
*Figure about 3 shells per person for a typical serving but boil a few more as some may break while cooking or stuffing.
- 4 – 6 c. more or less, homemade “Sunday Gravy” or marinara sauce (depending on quantity of shells you are preparing and if you want some to serve on the side)
- 3 plum tomatoes, skinned, seeded and cut into dice (optional)
- fresh basil leaves, torn for garnish
Prepare a light Alfredo sauce: Melt the butter in a saucepan then whisk in the flour, stirring constantly for about two minutes. Slowly add the warmed milk and continue to stir until the sauce is thickened and smooth. Add the cheese, salt and pepper and cook for about three minutes more. Let cool, then place in a resealable plastic bag and refrigerate. (Can be made a day in advance).
Prepare the cheese filling: Sauté the garlic in the olive oil until soft then add the spinach and cook until wilted. Let cool, squeeze out excess moisture and chop fine. Place in a bowl and mix in half of the mozzarella and all the other cheeses, nutmeg and season with salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary, then add the beaten egg and mix well. Place in a resealable plastic bag. (Can be made a day in advance).
Prepare the shells: Boil the shells for 9 minutes, drain, run under cold water then place on a sheet pan to drain and cool. Pour about a cup or more (depending on size of dish and the number of shells you are preparing) of sauce into the bottom 9 x 13 glass baking dish or a large rimmed sheet pan (if preparing a whole box as I did). Cut a tip off the plastic bag of cheese mixture and pipe some into each shell then line (open side up) on the sheet pan. Place about a tablespoon of sauce on each shell and sprinkle on the remaining mozzarella. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and uncover. Cut a small tip off the Alfredo sauce and pipe across the center of the shells, return to the oven uncovered and bake an additional 10 minutes until bubbly and just starting to brown. Remove from the oven and let rest for five minutes before serving.
Serve this meal family style right out of the baking dish or plate with a little extra sauce on the bottom of each plate, top with the shells, add a dollop of Alfredo sauce and then garnish with chopped fresh tomatoes and basil for an elegant presentation. Serve any remaining sauces at the table, if desired.
While not Italian myself, I have an Italian husband who loves the Italian dishes that I have learned to prepare over the years. In our many travels to Italy, we have had some outstanding and memorable meals prepared by famous chefs but when it comes to my husband’s favorite, give him a typical Sunday traditional dinner and he will be happy.