Traditional Italian Sunday Dinner, Four Cheese Stuffed Shells

four cheese stuffed shells

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.

four cheese stuffed shells
Four Cheese Stuffed Shells With Meatballs

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.

This would be followed by pasta where the sauce would be used in lasagna, stuffed shells, ravioli or other pastas such as pappardelle.

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.

four cheese stuffed shells
Four Cheese Stuffed Shells

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.



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93 thoughts on “Traditional Italian Sunday Dinner, Four Cheese Stuffed Shells

  1. What a wonderful sounding meal and recipe! Sitting down with the family for meals is very special and luckily for me we still manage to do it regularly – no TV, just family conversation! Happy new year to you, Karen 🙂

    1. Thank you for your compliment Kay, this is a meal that pleases everyone that tries it. Yes, I do know that you have family meals often and that is so nice. 😁

    1. Thank you Jan, for your lovely compliment. I like adding the fresh chopped tomato and basil to the shells, especially when serving guests.

  2. Oh my gosh you have just made me hungry for a good Italian meal! Everything looks and sounds so delicious. I love the idea of a Sunday dinner. We’re not Italian and our family lives too far away to do it often but we did have a huge tray of homemade lasagna and seafood mac and cheese while our kids and grandkids came to visit after Christmas.No cell phones, no tv, just good family time around the dinner table. It doesn’t get much better than that.

  3. I remember my mother’s Sunday dinners , they were actually lunches or Mittagessen as we call it in Germany. I miss them. Thank you Karen for bringing back the memories , your stuffed shells with meatballs are perfect for a Sunday dinner.

    1. Hi Gerlinde, It makes me happy to know that this post brought back fond memories of the Sunday dinners that your mother prepared for you and your family in Germany. Thank you for your kind words. I do hope you are continuing to heal properly.

  4. I haven’t had stuffed shells in years! And I have certainly never had them alongside meatballs – what a great idea! Your deserts look absolutely wonderful too, and I don’t think I’ve ever had either one of them. Please invite me over next time you make this dinner!

    1. Jeff, if you came our way, I would be happy to make this dinner for you. Thank you for your very nice compliment, it is much appreciated.

    1. Hi Angie, I do hope you try the stuffed shells and they are very good when enjoyed with meatballs. Thank you for your nice compliment.

  5. I’ve been thinking about stuffed shells lately, and how I haven’t made them in way too long. This is great inspiration! Terrific read — thanks.

    1. Hi Gary, I know what you mean about smartphones. I think we need to have a basket where everyone should put their phones at mealtimes. We could all enjoy the meal and each other’s company much better. 😁

    1. It is a nice tradition Amelia and yours with BBQ sounds perfect. I’m glad you like the stuffed shells…everyone I serve them too loves them.

  6. Here in Spain you still see large families getting together for a Sunday meal. I love it. Once a Spanish family invited us to join in. My big German family did the same as I was growing up. It is sad that in North America and in Britain this is seldom a custom anymore. I love Italian food and these recipes look great. Happy New Year!

    1. You are right Darlene, I remember being at a restaurant in Barcelona on a Sunday afternoon and it was filled with families. I’m glad you like the recipes, thank you.

    1. Thank you, I’m glad that I could share this tradition with you Mollie. Hopefully you will get to experience a meal like this someday. Every time we invite friends to share one of these meals with us, they all enjoy it very much.

    1. Hi Ronit, yes this is a meal that can easily be made in advance…always nice when you are entertaining. Thank you for your nice compliment.

    1. Thank you Jeanie, I’m glad you like the stuffed shells. You are so right, not a lot of pasta, just enough to make everyone happy, 😁

    1. Thank you for your compliment Larry. Loosing the weight before your surgery is important…afterwards, you can always have the stuffed shells. By the way, your Italian Christmas meal sure did look good..

  7. Hi Karen, I am just home from spending time with my parents for Christmas and had the distinct pleasure of eating many Italian (Italian-American) meals! There is nothing nicer than spending time with family and eating such delicious food. We even made Italian bow-tie cookies, which I have not had for many years. I will try your recipes, as they sound delicious! Happy New Year!

    1. Sounds like you had a wonderful Christmas Dana. I haven’t made those Italian bowtie cookies in years as well and I do like them. Thank you for your nice compliment and wish, it is much appreciated.

  8. Karen, you described the customary Italian Sunday meal perfectly. This worked wonderfully when I was growing up, however, I’ve moved so many times that my family of 4 was never around extended family to enjoy this tradition. I must say though, we kept our tradition of going to Mass every Sunday and having sit down family dinners afterwards, as well as on each and every day of the week. My daughter continues this tradition today, even though she has now moved to another state. I think that we do the best that we can given modern circumstances. Great post; I enjoyed reading it!
    Roz xo

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post Roz, thank you. You definitely know about the Italian traditions that I speak of and you have created some wonderful meals yourself.

  9. Love these stuffed shells!! They look amazing Karen!! My husband would be so happy if I make these for him! Happy New Year!!

    1. Happy New Year Anna and Liz. I’m glad you like the stuffed shells, they definitely are as good as they look according to our friends…thank you.

  10. What a wonderful “spread” to share with friends and family. This is a delicious meal, and I think the idea of sharing it once or twice a year as a very special gathering is just amazing. My cousin married an Italian man and they entertain a lot. I’m going to suggest that we make this meal for one of our extended family gatherings. They live in the Bay Area and we are in Los Angeles, so the gatherings are special when we do combine. This would be such a fun way to celebrate. So fun! Happy New Year, Karen. I’m looking forward to all that I will learn from you this coming year. 🙂

  11. Happy New Year, Karen!!! Our two sons join us most Sunday nights for dinner. Typically we toss something on the grill, but an Italian feast sounds fabulous. Stuffed shells are one of my daughter’s favorite meals, and adding mascarpone sounds amazing!!

    1. Thank you for your wish and compliment Liz, I’m happy to know that you do carry on a tradition of Sunday family dinners. The mascarpone makes the shells extra light, I’m glad you like the idea.

    1. Thank you for the compliment Susan. I think you and your family would really enjoy stuffed shells…especially these as they are very light.

  12. Italian food is my absolute favorite. The other night I had Italian jambalaya, and it was a sensational creation served over risotto.

  13. This is a lot of inspiration for a perfect home cooked Italian meal. Just wondering-when you make the sauce or gravy , do you all the meats or just one? I love making my own sauce and I’m wondering if I’m missing a huge steps.

    Loving all the detail in creating a delicious Italian meal, Karen!


    1. Thank you for your kind words Jane, I’m glad you like the meal. When you make the sauce or gravy as some call it, it can be made with just one kind of meat or more. When I prepare it, it always make meatballs and sausage because my husband loves them both. I add other meats if I’m having a large crowd and want to make it extra special. Enjoy!

  14. I love Italian food and the stuffed shells look delicious. I grew up with family meals after church every Sunday. My beloved Mom prepared the most delicious food and our family gathered around her table until 2007 when she passed away suddenly. My sister-in-love and I continue the tradition in our homes or taking the meal to my Dad’s and gathering at the table with all of our wonderful memories!

    Thanks for sharing the recipe and Happy New Year!

    1. Hi Pam, I think it is wonderful that you and your sister are carrying on your mother’s tradition of gathering together on Sundays for meals. Thank you for your nice wish and compliment, they are both appreciated.

    1. You are right Jenna, when I told our friends I was preparing an Italian meal for them they were all happy and loved what I served. Thank you.

  15. Happy New Year! Gathering around the table for a meal is still something I continue to cherish as a way to connect with others and I look forward to doing more of it in 2020. Wishing you all the best.

  16. Nobody’s going hungry in your house any time soon, Karen! It all looks delicious 🙂 🙂 A much simpler meatball pasta will be going on our table for two later.

    1. I appreciate your nice compliment Sylvia…thank you! I didn’t think about the Italian flag colors on the stuffed shells until you mentioned it.

  17. I am often shocked and saddened when I discover friends or family no longer sit down for a meal, it was such a staple in my household growing up. It’s a fabulous idea to fo this with friends, I just love a lingering meal, full of great food, great friends and laughter! Happy New Year! I hope you have a wonderful year filled with love, laughter and good health.

    1. Thank you for your lovely wish Eva, it is much appreciated. I do enjoy when I can have a group of friends over to enjoy a meal with us…they leave happy which in turn makes me happy. 😊

  18. I agree with you that the traditional Sunday dinner concept might be fading away, but I for one am all about bringing it back…especially if it involves delicious Italian food. Laura comes from a large Italian family, and while they don’t do Sunday meals (too spread out), they do make up for it at the holidays. The photos in this post remind me of Christmas Day dinner at their house…and it’s awesome! In fact, we made spaghetti and meatballs for Christmas this year (we stayed home). Now I need to add your stuffed shells recipe to the lineup, too. They look amazing, Karen!

    1. Hi David, I’m glad that you have experienced these fun and delicious Italian Sunday meals. I hope you and your family will enjoy the stuffed shells if you get the opportunity to make them.

  19. I’m sitting here patiently waiting for my dinner … and then I see your post and realise that I’m super hungry! How I would love to be munching on the four cheese stuffed shells right now! Followed quickly by the coffee panna cotta! My sort of Sunday dinner 👏

    1. I’m glad you like my Sunday dinner Julie, thank you for your compliment. I don’t know if my comments have been going through but life does look grand on your side of the world. Give Mr. B a big hug and “hello” for me.

  20. My Aunt Rae (married to the Sicilian Uncle Joe) made the most wonderful stuffed shells – it was a treat for us every time we visited. Thanks for bringing back these memories, and for the idea of adding mascarpone to the mix – so creamy! Buon Anno!

    1. I’m glad I brought back happy memories of meals at your Aunt Rae and Uncle Joe’s dinner table. The mascarpone really does give the shells a wonderfully light and creamy texture. Thank you for your nice compliment David.

  21. I could have sworn I already commented on this post, but I must have been dreaming! What a great family tradition, and it’s wonderful that you pay homage to it and try to keep the memory alive. It’s too special to be forgotten. I’m drooling over your shells and meatballs!!

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