When I was a kid growing up on Long Island, and my grandpa John Tortorello would go out to dinner with us on the weekend, we'd all go out as a family to Umberto's in New Hyde Park or Borelli's in East Meadow. I knew for certain that he'd order the same thing every time.
Now you have to understand, Grandpa John is a character, a former police detective, a great storyteller, a joke-teller, and, well, a little, um, unpredictable. Let's just say you never knew what kind of a story he was going tell you and leave it at that. So it was always kind of funny to me that he would pretty much order the same thing when we'd eat out: stuffed shells.
Now there were only ever two dishes he'd ever make for us. One was chili and the other was a side, roasted peppers. So he didn't have a philosophy on how he'd make stuffed shells, but he did have a philosophy about them at restaurants. "If they make good stuffed shells, the rest of the menu is probably pretty good too," he's explained to me.
There's some wisdom to this that I buy into. No, you get no indication of how well they do meat, but if they do stuffed shells right at a restuarant then they know how to make a good sauce, they have good cheese blends, good cheese coverage, they know how to use the right ratio of cheese to sauce, and they know how to cook their pasta. My barometer isn't shells, it's manicotti, but I buy into the approach. The cheese can't be dry inside the shells, there has to be some mozzarella in there, some cheese variation. There has to be good covering of cheese that's crisped and burned a bit in places, there has to be plenty of cheese, and there has to be enough sauce — more sauce than cheese.
It goes without saying, that pasta better not be overcooked.
I usually make my own sauce because it's really not very hard and it's so much better than anything else you're going to find, but as homage to the red-sauce joints of my youth, this recipe isn't from scratch, it relies on store-bought sauce and shells, and it's a little more of a stuffed shells Italian casserole, but I don't think Grandpa John would disapprove and neither will you.
In a hot pan, add a drizzle of oil, and then sauté the minced garlic and diced tomatoes. Then add the bottled sauce and basil and simmer until ready to use.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Par-cook the shells in boiling salted water until they're pliable but not soft. Mix ricotta, eggs, Parmesan, basil, mozzerella, red pepper flakes, ground pepper, and salt.
Line a casserole with the simmering tomato sauce. Fill each shell with the cheese mixture, line the shells up in the casserole, and cover with a thin layer of sauce. Then evenly scatter mozzerella and a cup of Parmesan over the top and ladle the sauce over to cover, leaving enough mozzarella to create a thick top layer (nothing wrong with using another half a bag here).
Cook in the oven for about 25 minutes, or until that crust forms, and serve in a bowl with red pepper flakes.