My first visit to New York City was not an auspicious one. I was 18, and on an overnight college bus trip. It snowed ferociously but not enough to clean up mucky Times Square, which had not yet been Disney-fied. And my sister spent all of Act I of “Big River” getting sick in the ladies room after a questionable dinner in Chinatown.
I had to be persuaded to return to New York City a year later, when my entire family signed up for a Christmastime bus trip sponsored by the staff association of my part-time employer, the Baltimore County Public Library. Fortunately, this trip made me fall in love with the city. We arrived in Manhattan on a brilliantly clear, cold morning and packed in a day of sightseeing, taking in the skaters at Rockefeller Center and the decorated windows of Saks and Bergdorf Goodman. We pushed through revolving doors to gape at the gilt overload of the Plaza, nodded to the giant bears in FAO Schwarz, found Strawberry Fields in the sprawl of Central Park, counted angels on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s grand Christmas tree.
By the end of the day, as we turned down 57th Street to see Carnegie Hall, we were exhausted and hungry. My resourceful mother asked someone in front of the concert venue for a recommendation on where to eat. He pointed us to an Italian restaurant across the street.
We didn’t know at the time that La Fontana di Trevi was a favorite among the Carnegie Hall crowd, or that it had been immortalized by Billy Joel in his song “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” (“A bottle of red/A bottle of white”). Instead, we melted into the warmth of stucco walls, white linen tablecloths and red-coated waiters who coddled us, brought us drinks and made us feel like treasured guests. My father remembers ordering gnocchi. I, too remember what I ate: a heart-stopping velvety dish of veal cannelloni with white sauce.
The cannelloni was gorgeous, subtle and rich with a faint, warm undertone of nutmeg, a mix of flavors that, from that moment on, I associated with New York more than roasting chestnuts or exhaust fumes.
The only pasta we ever ate at home was spaghetti and meatballs and the occasional lasagna. And while I had probably tried the similarly shaped manicotti (a dried pasta) in a restaurant, I had never had cannelloni (a fresh pasta), much less stuffed with veal and sauced in bechamel laced with cheese. I was smitten.
All of my family’s subsequent trips to New York included a trip to La Fontana di Trevi, and although little things distinguished different visits—the year it was balmy in December, the year we waited in the bar for our table and a female patron flirted outrageously with my dad, much to his pleasure and our amusement—I always ordered the cannelloni.
Little did I know that years later I would marry someone who had his own cannelloni memories. While Kevin was in college in Minnesota, a friend took him to a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant whose name he no longer remembers in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. There he ordered veal cannelloni in white sauce—exotic for a small- town Iowa boy whose only experience with noodles was macaroni and cheese or Hamburger Helper—and returned to order it again and again.
La Fontana di Trevi has closed, but the memory of its cannelloni lingers. I’ve never found one to match it. And every so often—when we visit New York, when we go to an Italian restaurant—Kevin mentions that we should just make our own cannelloni. So earlier in the fall, when he was carbo-loading in preparation for the Baltimore marathon, I decided the time was right. I cobbled together a plan from several cookbook recipes and my own memory and jumped in, melting butter in a skillet and lightly browning diced onion, garlic, carrot and celery before adding ground veal. When the mixture had cooked, I let it cool slightly, and following Marcella Hazan’s instructions, I added to it an egg yolk, a handful of Parmesan and a couple scoops of ricotta. That was the filling.
Next I made a basic béchamel to which I added still more Parmesan. I used a current magazine recipe as a guide for the noodles, blitzing flour and salt and eggs in the food processor and kneading the dough together before letting it rest for a few minutes. Then I rolled it out on my metal top table and fed it through the pasta machine given to me by my former (Italian) pastor. It had been his mother’s, and I channeled Mama Casciotti as I turned the crank. The pasta sheet rolled through, egg-yellow, pliable and thin as a membrane. After the pasta was cut, boiled and drained, I rolled each rectangle around a spoonful of the veal mixture, put it in a baking dish and topped the loose rolls with sauce.
We poured wine, toasted the cannellonis of our past and bit into my creation, hoping to taste the dish of our memories. But, in truth, my cannelloni was just OK. The sauce could have been thinner; the pasta, lighter.
Will it be better next time? As they say in Minnesota, “You betcha.”
Veal Cannelloni with White Sauce
It would be no less time-consuming, but instead of making your own pasta, you could instead make crepes or crespelle for your cannelloni. Or you could save heaps of time and use dried manicotti. You won’t get the same gentle pliancy in the pasta, however.
2 tablespoons butter
1 small carrot, peeled and diced
1 small rib of celery, peeled and diced
¼ cup onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound ground veal
1 egg yolk
½ cup grated Parmesan
½ to 1 cup ricotta, to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter in a large skillet. Add carrot, celery, onion and garlic and cook slowly over medium heat until softened, but not browned, around 10 minutes. Add veal and cook until no remnants of pink remain. Remove from heat and cool slightly.
Lightly beat egg yolk and add to meat mixture along with both cheeses. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
2 cups milk
4 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup grated Parmesan
Heat milk in saucepan until bubbles form around edge of pan. Do not boil.
In another saucepan, melt butter. Add flour all at once, stirring constantly for 2 minutes. Do not allow flour to brown. Remove from heat.
Add hot milk to butter-flour mixture several tablespoons at a time, stirring until milk is incorporated before adding more milk. Once all milk has been added, return pot to stove, add salt, and cook over low heat until sauce has thickened. Remove from heat and stir in Parmesan.
2 cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt
3 eggs, lightly beaten
In a food processor, mix together flour and salt. Add eggs, and process until dough is pebbly looking and just begins to hold together. Remove dough from processor and knead by hand until smooth. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and let sit for 15 minutes.
Divide dough into 2 pieces. Roll 1 piece of dough into long ¼-inch-thick rectangle and pass through pasta machine several times, each pass on a narrower setting. Cut the pasta into roughly 6-by- 5-inch rectangles. Do the same with the remaining piece of dough.
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta rectangles, a few at a time, in boiling water, around 1 minute. Remove each rectangle from pot and cool briefly in a bowl of cold water. Drain pasta and dry on paper towels. Lightly brush each rectangle with olive oil.
Putting it together:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Spread ¼ cup béchamel on bottom of pan. Starting with short end of pasta sheets, place a generous tablespoon on the short end of each pasta sheet and roll into a loose roll. Place rolls together snugly in pan. Pour remaining béchamel over pasta. Bake for 40 minutes.
Yield: 6 servings.