I wanted to make cannelloni the other day but I was pressed for time. So I went shopping and bought a box of manicotti shells. Actually, I really didn't buy “manicotti” shells; that's just what the manufacturer calls them.
Don't worry if you don't know the difference. Most “Italian” restaurants in the US don't either. And, obviously, neither do the people who make pasta for American consumption.
Manicotti – which roughly means “sleeves” – is a filled crepe rather than an actual pasta and is traditionally prepared in a special crepe pan. In Italy, one would be hard pressed to find “manicotti” on a menu as anything made from a crepe is likely to be called a “crespelle.”
Cannelloni is a stuffed pasta dish. And although the stuffing, or ripieno, can often be the same, the element that sets the two apart is the actual construction of the dish. In making cannelloni, you start with a pasta sheet which you stuff and roll into a tube. The word “cannelloni” loosely translates to “big reeds” or “big tubes.” Or you can buy said big tubes ready for stuffing. Except in America, they're sold as manicotti. Got it?
If you're going to make cannelloni at home, you can use a lasagne sheet or you can make your own pasta. You par cook the pasta sheets, lay them out on dampened towels or paper towels, put a couple of tablespoons of whatever filling you're using – cheese, meat, spinach, mushrooms, etc. – along a long edge, roll it up and place it seam side down in a baking dish already layered with your sauce of choice, usually either a tomato sauce or a bechamel. Pour a little more sauce over the top, sprinkle on some grated cheese, and bake it.
Or, if you're adventurous, you can use the aforementioned “manicotti” shells, but beware; stuffing a pre-made shell is not a task for the faint of heart or inexperienced of hand. Once you par cook the shells – and you do have to par cook them – the little buggers become both slippery and fragile. It's really easy to tear one in the process of filling it. And filling it is a process, for sure. You can try spooning the filling in – a technique almost guaranteed to tear up the pasta – but good luck getting an even filling all the way through. Piping in the filling from a pastry bag or its equivalent is a much better way to get an even fill, but here, too, you run the risk of popping the shell if you pipe a little too vigorously. It's faster, easier, and more authentic to do the roll up method.
And that's pretty much the same way you make manicotti. Same technique, anyway. Different building material. For manicotti, you need to start with a super-thin crepe. And I do mean super-thin. If your crepe is too thick or uneven in texture, you're going to have a hard time stuffing and rolling it. A decent crepe batter can be made with 3/4 cup flour, 2 eggs, 2 or 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter, 3/4 cup of milk, 1/4 cup warm water, and a little salt and pepper. A crepe pan is nice, but a good non-stick pan will work, too. From there on, it's a matter of technique. Getting the right amount of batter in the pan, swirling it around to get the right consistency, flipping it or turning it properly – if you can make pancakes you can do it. It just takes a little practice. Then you lay the crespelle out flat and fill and and roll it in the same manner as you would with pasta for cannelloni.
Most American cookbooks and recipe websites, as well as most Italian-American restaurants, use the terms “cannelloni” and “manicotti” interchangeably. But they really are distinctive dishes with unique flavors and textures. Try 'em both and experience the difference.