This Is Our Most Romantic Recipe of All Time

It's cheesy comfort food that's impossible not to love.

When you hear the phrase “romantic dinner,” what springs to mind? Oysters Rockefeller? Pan-seared steak? A fussy soufflé that you’d make but once a year? For me, it’s something much more humble: Cheese Manicotti.

The Story Behind the Recipe

I first discovered this recipe just last year when I was fumbling for gift ideas for a bridal shower. (At the time, I did not realize you were supposed to buy items, like these, off the couple’s registry.) Instead, I went the creative route and decided to put together a dinner kit for my friend and her fiancé.

I knew I wanted to gift her a heartfelt recipe, so I spent a long evening thumbing through the archive of countless of Taste of Home recipes until I landed on something perfect. It was a simple Italian dish with a heartwarming story attached:

“The first thing I cooked for my husband was my famous manicotti. However, even before that, I cooked onions. Yes, I said onions. It was actually just before we met. He lived across the stairway from me in our apartment complex. I secretly wanted to meet him and had always heard that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I knew nothing smelled better than frying onions, so I fried a pan full of onions, opened the window and tried to wave the tantalizing smell over to his apartment.”

Meeting a man with fried onions? Even a rom-com writer couldn’t make this up.

“Well, it didn’t work, but we did meet and I fixed my famous manicotti for our first meal. We married shortly after that and for 38 years he has enjoyed my manicotti and, of course, fried onions.”

The story had me grinning from ear to ear.

As it turns out, the recipe was submitted by Joan Hallford, one of our Volunteer Field Editors, whose many dishes have been cherished by our readers for decades. I had the chance to catch up with Joan.

“To this day, my husband laughs every time he hears the story,” she says, “Our 46th anniversary is next month on Valentine’s Day.” Who knew that the secret to long-lasting love was pasta casserole and fried onions? So simple.

Of course, her manicotti recipe is easy to love because it contains basic ingredients like a jar of marinara sauce (learn our favorite brand), ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan and, of course, one small onion.

See, Joan? Your trick may have worked after all. Mr. Hallford isn’t alone in his love for the recipe. In the last year, over 20,000 people viewed the recipe and left nothing but 5-star reviews.

The Famous Manicotti Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 carton (15 ounces) reduced-fat ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
  • 4 cups marinara sauce
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 package (8 ounces) manicotti shells

Directions

Preheat oven to 350°. In a small bowl, mix the first seven ingredients; stir in 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese. In another bowl, mix marinara sauce and water; spread 3/4 cup sauce onto bottom of a 13×9-in. baking dish coated with cooking spray. Fill uncooked manicotti shells with ricotta mixture; arrange over sauce. Top with remaining sauce.

Bake, covered, 50 minutes or until pasta is tender. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan cheese. Bake, uncovered, 10-15 minutes longer or until cheese is melted.

Have a special occasion coming up? Gift this to the cook in your life by purchasing a fancy casserole dish (like this one). Fill it with a package of manicotti shells and pasta sauce from an Italian specialty shop. And don’t forget to attach the recipe card to the bow!

How to Stir Up Romance at Home

In the end, the most romantic recipes don’t need to be expensive or upscale. They just need to come from the heart, and the best way to do this is with a homemade meal. Get your apron dirty and surprise your loved one with something new. Try out Joan’s recipe or one of our 50 other easy and impressive recipes for two. Or just have your hand at a couple of onions!

Oh, and as for my gift? A year in and the newlyweds are still whipping up manicotti and similar recipes together—and I’m quite certain they will for years to come.

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Nicole Doster
Nicole is a writer, editor and lover of Italian food. In her spare time, you’ll find her thumbing through vintage cookbooks or testing out recipes in her tiny kitchen.