Lasagna 101 | Baked Italian Pasta
A classic Italian comfort food, lasagna is one baked pasta dish worthy of its American popularity! Just as each family has its own meatloaf or soup recipe passed down through generations, lasagna calls to mind many different variations from kitchen to kitchen across Italy. Whether you layer it up with seasonal veggies or a savory combination of your favorite cheeses, lasagna is the perfect way to celebrate any occasion.
Story by: Piergiorgio and Amy Nicoletti
Lasagne calde, calde le lasagne, caldeee!!! Forty years ago, you could hear vendors bellow those words from the busy platform of Bologna railway station.Though lasagna vendors don't exist today, Lasagna alla Bolognese remains the most famous recipe in Italy and throughout Europe. In Italy, countless regional variations of lasagne exist (the “e” at the end of "lasagne" makes it plural.) Ingredients vary according to place and local custom, but the unique character of lasagna remains the same: layers of flat or curly noodles, separated by layers of rich sauces, a focus ingredient like meat, fish or vegetables—all baked up into one glorious masterpiece of flavor! While lasagna was born in Italy, a familiar hot slice of this cheesy, rich comfort food makes it one of the most commonly craved Italian dishes in homes and restaurants all around the globe.
As a child, I was totally addicted to lasagna: a regular dish served on Easter, Christmas Day and birthdays. Since there were eight of us in the family, this greatly increased the odds. Every five weeks or so, I could count on a truly delectable lasagna dinner. Nothing brought me more excitement than waking on one of those 10 mornings. Taking full advantage of my youngest brother’s malleable youth, I would shamelessly connive him into trading me part of his lasagna for my dessert. My mother’s lasagna is the very best I ever had: classic Lasagne alla Bolognese made with homemade spinach lasagne, ragù, béchamel and Parmigiano-Reggiano. This lasagna recipe differs from the most popular versions in the US, because most of the Italians in the U.S. emigrated from southern Italy, where it was unknown until just a few generations ago.
A BAKED PASTA TRADITION
Originating in Emilia-Romagna and Marche, lasagna differs from region to region, but also town to town. Pasticcio, which means “mixed up," refers to the freedoms in choosing ingredients. The traditional Lasagna alla Bolognese is made with spinach-and-egg lasagna, a ragù of ground beef and veal, onions, carrots, celery, white wine, tomatoes, a few herbs and spices, Parmigiano-Reggiano and béchamel— an Italian cream sauce. Elsewhere, ingredients vary greatly: from different vegetables to cooked ham and even boiled eggs. Recently, mozzarella is one of the most popular main ingredients, along with ricotta cheese, which replaces béchamel.
LET'S TALK SAUCE
Ragù di carne, or meat sauce, is the most common. Meat sauces have their own variations. The famous Neapolitan ragù is much richer in tomatoes and onions than the northern version, and uses cuts of meat or meat still on the bone (like ribs or pork.) The addition of meatbones make for a more flavorful sauce; all bones are elimated at the very end of cook-time. This version of ragù is also very popular in America, where sauces became richer with the addition of meatballs, braciole, sausages and pork chops. When this ragù is used for lasagna, the cooked meat is chopped very finely and then returned to the sauce. In South-Central Italy, lasagna is prepared with a plain tomato sauce, ricotta and mozzarella cheese, and spinach. In the Liguria region—the birthplace of Pesto alla Genovese—lasagne is made with the famous fragrant green sauce!
Two other noteworthy varieties:
- Lasagne con Verdure, or Vegetable Lasagna: Various veggies are grilled or cooked separately—each in a different way to enhance their individual flavors. Veggies like spinach, mushrooms, eggplant, leeks, peppers, zucchini, radicchio and fresh tomato are the most popular choices. Layers typically consist of veggies, béchamel and Parmigiano.
- Lasagne con Pesce, or Fish Lasagna: Fish broth and juices are used to create the béchamel sauce. Fish Lasagna can be seasoned with Parmigiano or not, depending on taste. If you dare, you could actually attempt to use some grated mountain cheese such as Fontina, or even Taleggio, as an alternative. Most Italians are vehemently opposed to combining cheese with fish in pasta dishes, but this dish is the perfect opportunity to rebel!
FRESH PASTA: HOMEMADE LASAGNA SHEETS
Homemade lasagna noodles can be made with a dough made with flour and eggs, with spinach or just semolina (durum-wheat flour) and water. White lasagna noodles, with or without eggs, are tasty for all preparations, but spinach lasagna noodles are the ideal pasta for Lasagne alla Bolognese.
These days, store-bought lasagna noodles are definitely easier. But make sure you boil your noodles in batches, so they don't stick. [Check out our Guide to Boiling Lasagna Noodles coming soon.] Easier yet are the no-boil, or "oven-ready," varieties, reducing prep time. For no-boil varieties, we suggest a thinner pasta sauce, because the no-boil lasagna noodles will absorb more liquid. Another helpful tip: prepare the lasagna dish a few hours before baking, time permitting, to allow it to sit; this gives the noodles a chance to soften. While it is unnecessary, some no-boil varieties can be boiled for a few minutes to enhance texture, but still cut down on prep time.
- Lasagne alla Bolognese
- Classic 3-Cheese Lasagna
- Fish/Seafood Lasagna
- Roasted Vegetable Lasagna
- Wild Mushroom Lasagna
More than the traditional baked pasta or casserole, here are some new ways to use lasagna noodles in your everyday kitchen creations. Make 'em into "manicotti"-type rolls filled with cheeses or get out your cupcake pan and make lasagna minis!
- Crispy Lasagna Pizza
- Chicken Carbonara Lasagna Minis
- Ricotta & Spinach Manicotti (Lasagna Roll-Ups)
- Weeknight Skillet Lasagna
- Fire-Roasted Olive Pasta Pinwheels
Visit our online marketplace to pick up lasagna, along with all the necessary goods needed for a fabulous Italian meal—our (fresh-tomato) Pomodoro Fresco Pasta Sauces, crispy Italian Breadsticks, grated cheeses and more!