Serve comforting, hearty Italian dishes on cold January days

Photo by Ann Cipperly
Prepare a comforting hearty Italian dish for family this coming week. Pictured are stuffed pasta shells topped with Terry Carmona’s Tomato Gravy, shredded mozzarella cheese and a sprinkling of freshly shaved Parmesan cheese. Serve pasta dishes with a salad and warm bread.

By Ann Cipperly

On cold January days, hearty Italian dishes provide comforting meals that everyone in the family will enjoy and savor. Whether it is a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, stuffed shells, manicotti or another pasta dish, it can be prepared ahead and reheated or frozen for another day. It is easy to double most pasta dishes to have one to serve for dinner and another one for the freezer to pull out on hectic days.

During the winter months, we often have a pasta dish for lunch or dinner. I will prepare a big batch of stuffed pasta shells or manicotti and place them on a cookie sheet to freeze. Once they are frozen, I put them in containers or plastic bags in the freezer. They are ready to pull out for a quick meal on busy days.

When making pasta dishes, I prefer whole grain pasta and sometimes use brown rice pasta. The brown rice pasta is available at local markets in the organic foods aisle. My family can’t tell the difference between brown rice pasta and regular pastas.

If I don’t have much time, I will use a good jarred sauce with the pasta. Now that I have been home more, I have been making more sauces from scratch. Lately, I have been making Terry Carmona’s Tomato Gravy, a recipe that belongs to Debbie Sanders, who lives in Birmingham and is a friend of my sister-in-law.

My brother, Rodney, met Debbie in the singles’ class at First Baptist Church of Opelika. Debbie, who grew up in Garden City, moved here to attend Auburn University. After she graduated, Debbie liked the area so much that she stayed and went to work at a local newspaper. Later, she was the first public relations director for East Alabama Medical Center.

We were so happy when Debbie and Rodney purchased a lot to build a house down from us in Collinwood, but then BellSouth promoted and transferred him to Birmingham. Two years later he was offered another promotion with Bellcore in northern New Jersey. Rodney was there for several months. Debbie and their children stayed with him part of that time. While they were there, they visited some of Debbie’s family friends who lived on Staten Island.

The Carmona family were Italians who loved to cook and share a good meal. Terry made her wonderful tomato gravy recipe for them during that visit. Fortunately, Debbie asked for the recipe and then prepared it for us. We were thankful when Rodney completed his time with Bellcore and returned to Birmingham.

While a variety of meats can be used in the tomato gravy, Debbie prepared it with ground turkey, which was delicious after it had simmered two hours. The sauce can be meatless or made with Italian sausage, ground beef or meatballs.

It is an easy sauce to make. Use San Marzano canned tomatoes if you can find them. Most grocery stores carry them now.

Another delectable sauce is Linda Letlow’s Penne alla Vecchia Bettola. It is easy since you bake it instead of cooking it on the stove top. The recipe is from a famous restaurant in the Hamptons called Nick and Toni’s. Linda often makes it on a weekend when she wants to serve good food but is not in the mood to cook. She uses San Marzano tomatoes.

When Don and I lived in an Italian neighborhood in south Philadelphia for a few years, I could find San Marzano tomatoes and special pastas at the Italian market across the street from our apartment. Every morning, loaves of Italian bread were delivered to the market and placed on shelves without being in a bag or covered. The bread was gone by the end of the day.

The market was filled with Italian ingredients for creating wonderful dishes. There was a small butcher shop in back where beef was freshly ground when ordered.

Since then, every time we find an Italian market in an area, we have to go explore. In St. Petersburg, Florida, Mazzaro’s Italian Market is excellent, as is the kitchen shop next door. The spacious market has a fresh pasta section offering raviolis, manicotti and assorted noodles for spaghetti dishes. They also have fresh and frozen meatballs and their house-made sauces in the refrigerated section.

Other sections include a bakery, a display of various flavors of gelato and a cheese room, among others. A restaurant is located on the back of the market.

Florida seems to have a number of Italian markets. Another favorite is Carmine’s La Trattoria and Gourmet Market in Palm Beach Gardens. This market also has a section filled with assorted fresh pastas and dishes such as eggplant Parmesan. The bakery and dessert section is really nice too.

The market offers two good restaurants, Coal Fired Pizza Ristorante and Trattoria. At Trattoria, we enjoyed eggplant Parmesan and pasta with vodka sauce.

We brought home jars of their house-made pasta sauce that went quickly once we were home. Hopefully, the next time we visit family in that area we can stock up again. Last time, we didn’t go because of COVID, and we knew the market would be crowded.

Look over the following recipes (A11) and surprise your family this coming week with a hearty, comforting Italian dish.

Ann Cipperly can be reached at

Terry Carmona’s Tomato Gravy

Debbie Sanders

4 cloves garlic, minced

1-2 oz. olive oil

Two 25-oz. cans whole or diced tomatoes (can sub 1 25-oz. can crushed tomatoes for 1 of these)

1 Tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped (can use 2 tsp. dried)

1 tsp. dried basil

½ tsp. dried oregano

In a large heavy pot, sauté garlic in olive oil until lightly browned. Mash or puree tomatoes and add to pot with herbs.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for one and a half to two hours, stirring from time to time.

If adding meat, select one of the following:

Italian sausage links that have been pricked with a fork and pressed to release juices

1 lb. meatballs, ground beef or ground turkey

Sausage links can be added directly to the sauce to cook. For meatballs, ground beef or turkey, cook until browned; drain. Add to sauce when it comes to a boil. Simmer for one and a half to two hours.

Chicken Spaghetti

Char Warren

My three children love this and request I make it for them when visiting. Make a lot of this, as it is requested for days after it is prepared.

Recipe can be cut in half.

4 lbs. chicken breasts, poached and cooled in broth

8 stalks celery, finely chopped

3 large onions, finely chopped      

1½ green peppers, finely chopped

3 cloves minced garlic

I often use food processor on pulse to chop the above ingredients. Don’t over chop, as you want some texture to the sauce.

Sauté chopped vegetables until wilted and soft, in enough olive oil to cover bottom of large roaster. This makes a very large amount of sauce, but it freezes well.


6 cans tomato paste (8 oz. size)

3 14.5-oz. cans diced tomatoes, do not drain

4 cans mushrooms (or use 1 lb. sliced, fresh and sauté with vegetables)

2 quarts chicken broth

1-1½ Tbsp. Cajun seasoning (or to taste)

1 Tbsp. Kosher salt

1 Tbsp. dried basil (If you have fresh basil, add 3-4 Tbsp. at end of cooking as it will darken.)

1 tsp. dried oregano

½ cup red wine

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, sprinkled on top

Bone and shred or cut up chicken and add to sauce. Simmer about 2 hours, stirring to prevent sticking.

Makes about 20 cups. Serve over noodles cooked in broth from chicken, with a generous grating of Parmesan on top and fresh basil as garnish.

Pasta Milano

Melanie Constance

Copy of dish at Macaroni Grill

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1 large garlic clove, minced

2 cups heavy cream  

1 beef bouillon cube

1 Tbsp. butter

4 oz. sun-dried tomatoes, chopped

1 lb. bowtie (or other wide noodle) cooked according to package directions, drained

6 Tbsp. Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

1-2 chicken breasts, grilled, sliced into thin strips (I slice the chicken in half and then flatten it with the flat side of a meat mallet until it is the same thickness throughout. Then brush it with olive oil and sprinkle lightly with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Cover chicken with plastic wrap to keep chicken juices from spraying everywhere.)

Heat oil in a saucepan and sauté garlic over low heat about 1 minute. Add heavy cream and bouillon cube, salt and pepper; bring to simmer until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Add sun-dried tomatoes and simmer another minute.

Remove from heat; add butter, pasta and Parmesan, mixing well. Serve with grilled chicken.

Note: Half and half may be substituted for heavy cream, but add ½ Tbsp. flour to help thicken. Serves 4-6.

Quick and Easy Stuffed Shells or Manicotti

1 box jumbo shells or manicotti noodles, cooked following directions on box

1 batch homemade sauce with or without meat or 1 jar pasta sauce of choice

2 15-oz. containers ricotta cheese

2 8-oz. pkg.  (4 cups) shredded mozzarella, divided

¼ cup Parmesan cheese

2 tsp. dried basil or parsley, optional

Extra Parmesan cheese for topping 

For filling, blend together ricotta cheese, 3 cups mozzarella, Parmesan cheese, basil and salt to taste. Fill shells.

Cover bottom of 13 x 9-inch baking pan with a little sauce. Place filled manicotti over sauce. Pour remaining sauce over noodles. Sprinkle remaining 1 cup mozzarella cheese and extra Parmesan cheese over top. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Note: Can make ahead and store in refrigerator until ready to bake or freeze.

Penne alla Vecchia Bettola

Linda Letlow

This recipe is from the famous restaurant in the Hamptons called Nick and Toni’s. It’s so easy to make. It is important to use good canned tomatoes. All of the grocery stores carry Sam Marzano tomatoes, which are imported and have an especially good flavor.

¼ cup olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1½ tsp. dried oregano

1 cup vodka

2 28-oz. cans whole peeled plum tomatoes, drained

Kosher salt and pepper

¾ lb. penne pasta

2 Tbsp. chopped fresh oregano

1 cup heavy cream

½ freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Heat oil in a 12-inch ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add onions and cook for about 5 minutes, until onions are translucent.

Add red pepper flakes and dried oregano and cook for 1 more minute. Add vodka and simmer for 5 to 7 minutes, until mixture is reduced by half.

Using clean hands, crush each tomato into pan. Do not add liquid from can. Add 2 tsp. salt and ½ tsp. pepper. Cover pan, place in oven, and bake for 1½ hours.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add 2 Tbsp. of salt to water. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

Puree tomato mixture either with an immersion blender or in a blender until smooth. Return tomato mixture to sauté pan. Be careful because handle is hot! Add fresh oregano, cream, 1 tsp. salt and ½ tsp. pepper. Simmer partially covered for 10 minutes. Add pasta to sauce and cook for 2 more minutes.

Stir in ½ cup Parmesan cheese and serve hot with extra Parmesan sprinkled over top.

Super Tender Meatballs

Kelcie Carpenter

1 lb. ground beef (can use ground turkey)

2 eggs

¼ cup breadcrumbs

¼ cup Parmesan cheese

1 clove garlic, finely chopped)

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. black pepper

1 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley

2 oz. olive oil

Combine all ingredients except oil. Form into 8 compacted balls. Heat oil in large frying pan over medium heat and fry meatballs until golden brown, turning every couple of minutes. You may need to do this in 2 or 3 batches. Reserve meatballs and filter oil using a fine mesh strainer.


1 small onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2½ oz. tomato paste

16 oz. canned chopped tomatoes

5 oz. (1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp.) + 1 pint (maybe less) hot water

Salt and pepper to taste

½ Tbsp. finely chopped parsley

Add filtered oil to a clean frying pan. (Depending on how much you are able to save, you may or may not want to add all of it.) Add onion and garlic and let sweat for about 2 minutes. Then add tomato paste and cook on medium heat for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly.

Then add 5 oz. hot water to pan and cook for 1 minute, stirring.

The gravy is now done. Remove from heat and set aside.

To a large pot, add chopped tomatoes and cook on medium heat for 5 minutes. Then, add gravy from other pan into pot. Add reserved meatballs and cover with hot water. Add parsley, salt and pepper and stir gently.

Cook on medium heat for about 15 minutes then cover (but leave a slight crack) and let simmer for 2 ½ hours, stirring every 20- 25 minutes. Check for seasoning and serve with noodles or some crusty Italian bread.


Kellie Blackmon

2 Tbsp olive oil

1 cup chopped onions

28-oz. can crushed tomatoes

½ cup finely chopped basil

1½ tsp. salt, divided

2 tsp. ground black pepper, divided

1 lb. ground beef, cooked and drained

16-oz. pkg. shredded mozzarella cheese

15-oz. container whole milk ricotta cheese

½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Parmesan cheese, divided

8-oz. box cannelloni shells (manicotti), cooked according to package directions

In a Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium high heat; add onions and cook for 4 to 6 minutes or until tender. Add tomatoes, basil, 1 tsp. salt and 1 tsp. pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, stirring frequently, for 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 3½-qt. baking dish with non-stick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, combine ground beef, mozzarella cheese, ricotta cheese, 2 Tbsp. Parmesan cheese, remaining ½ tsp. salt, remaining ½ tsp. pepper and 4 Tbsp. of sauce mixture. Stuff cannelloni with meat mixture and place in a single layer in prepared baking dish.

Top with remaining sauce mixture. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan cheese evenly over sauce. Bake for 30 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

I add more than 4 Tbsp. sauce to the meat mixture. I also put sauce on top and bottom of the shells.

Rose Giordano’s Baked Ziti

Gina Giordano Fromhold

2 lb. ziti pasta, cooked

Large kettle of pasta sauce

2 lbs. ground beef

16 oz. mozzarella

15-oz. container ricotta

Parmesan cheese

Kettle of Sauce:

4 cans tomatoes

1 onion, chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

Basil, fresh or dried

Salt and pepper

Garlic powder

Sicilian-style sugar

Cover bottom of saucepan with olive oil; brown chopped onion and garlic. Add tomatoes (crushed or place in blinder). Remaining ingredients should be added to taste. Simmer for flavors to blend.

To make ziti, brown ground beef and drain. Cut mozzarella into chunks. Place some of the cooked pasta in a layer on bottom of large baking pan or use two pans.

Place layer of sauce on bottom of pan. Cover with a layer of pasta. Sprinkle ground beef, mozzarella and scoops of ricotta; sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. With each layer spoon sauce to cover as well. Repeat until all are used.

Baked covered with foil at 350 degrees about half an hour.