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Lasagne: the history and countless variations of a true Italian classic

Sloppy or sturdy? Meaty or veggie? Cheesy or cheese-free? Lasagne has an official definition, but there are countless variations across Italy and beyond.

Lasagne is codified as a classic of Bolognese cuisine by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina (an organisation dedicated to preserving Italy’s culinary heritage).

Photograph by Jamie Orlando
Published 24 Sept 2021, 15:00 BST, Updated 27 Sept 2021, 09:19 BST

To understand the nature of lasagne, ask not what it is or how it’s made but who’s eating it. Like many world-wandering dishes, lasagne is not so much a recipe as a reflection of human taste, in all its wild variety. Ancient Greece can lay some claim to being its birthplace, with laganon. This is said by some to have been the first pasta — sheets of dough cut into strips — from which the Romans likely took the name for their lagane, the basis for lasagne patina. Little is known about this trailblazing dish, except that it called for the inclusion of sow’s belly and fish. Since then, however, it’s travelled the globe, evolving and acquiring innumerable iterations. 

Lasagne is codified as a classic of Bolognese cuisine by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina (an organisation dedicated to preserving Italy’s culinary heritage). It defines it as spinach egg pasta layered with ragu and bechamel. Yet, there are plenty of variations to be found, and the dish’s multifarious nature is evident by the fact that entire cookbooks have been dedicated to it. Lasagna, A Baked Pasta Cookbook, by Anna Hezel and The Editors of Taste, offers 128 pages of recipe inspiration, as well as the revelation that the common Americanism ‘lasagna’ is the word for a single sheet of pasta; ‘lasagne’ is the correct name of the dish, the final ‘e’ indicating the plurality of pasta layers.

Within what’s considered lasagne’s native region, Emilia-Romagna, the classic Bologna ragu comes in subtly different forms, depending on where you eat it. Veal and offal may be added to the varying quantities of beef and fatty pork used to make the hand-cut mince. This is then sauted, sweated or braised in some form of fat (not always olive oil), along with a soffritto of finely chopped onion, celery and carrot that should melt to an indistinguishable base.

It’s essential that the ragu is cooked for a minimum of two hours; another thing purists insist on is that garlic and herbs need not apply (apart from a touch of nutmeg in the bechamel). Canned tomatoes are banished in favour of a smidge of tomato purée; the liquid element comes from a touch of meat broth, wine or milk. And mozzarella doesn’t get a look in. In fact, melted cheese — beloved of pasta bakes worldwide — is eschewed in favour of bechamel, and a sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano on top — a nod to Emilia-Romagna’s finest formaggio. 

Read more: Deconstructing tiramisu, the coffee-infused Italian classic

But lasagne isn’t always made with such purist zeal; its ubiquity means it’s often made badly. So badly, in fact, that here in the UK many Italians and Italophile Brits won’t touch the stuff. Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli bemoaned the British version as being closer to sloppy shepherd’s pie, while the ‘bad lasagne years’ is what Guardian food writer Rachel Roddy called the time she endured growing up in England before moving to Rome. This era of stodgy school dinners and 1980s ready meals taking lasagne’s name in vain almost wrote the dish off for many. In truth, lasagne in the UK is still often made with overcooked pasta, blotchy bechamel and a runny ragu that’s at best a distant relative of the Bolognese version. And that’s nothing compared to the more heinous crimes committed against lasagne, including Iceland’s chicken tikka version (now discontinued) and Tesco’s lasagne sandwich.

Often seen as somewhat old-fashioned, classic lasagne is shunned by many of the UK’s smarter contemporary Italian restaurants and is more likely to be found on the menus of a Chianti-wielding neighbourhood trattoria, served alongside fried mozzarella balls. Where the dish has endured is on the shelves of the supermarket. And it may come as a revelation to devotees of the ready-meal varieties — posh ones included — that lasagne is meant to be quite a dry dish. It should have notable structural integrity, standing to attention, not coming undone in a puddle of sauce. It should be possible to divide into neat, straight-edged portions. But it should still be delicate and moist, giving way to the cut of a fork like a good mille-feuille, without any of its layers making an individual bid for freedom. And when it’s good — as it would be in most Italian homes, where it’s a staple Sunday lunch — there’s little that can touch it for velvety, indulgent comfort.

As the great pasta sheet shortage of the March 2020 lockdown proved, Brits class this key lasagne ingredient — along with toilet roll — as an essential item. But it should be used to make comforting food, not lazily made comfort food. Lasagne is a dish that takes time — particularly if you roll the pasta yourself, carefully construct your creation with a slow-cooked sauce and scratch-made bechamel, resting it for an hour before baking. A labour of love it might be, but even cheffy creations have nodded to its home-cooked nature. Massimo Bottura’s dish, The Crunchy Part of the Lasagne, for example, paid homage to the element of the bake that many families have drawn knives over: the slightly burnt corners.
Bottura’s recipe, originally served at his Modena restaurant Osteria Francescana, lives on at Francescana at Maria Luigia, another of his restaurants (also in Modena). It features a single pasta sheet — fried, toasted and seared — topped with a meat ragu and bechamel. Back in 1993, an even more ambitious creation was cooked up by chef Mark Ladner, the then executive chef at Mario Batali’s now defunct New York restaurant Del Posto. This Princess and the Pea-inspired, 100-layer, Italian-US hybrid included mozzarella, ricotta, marinara sauce and dried, wavy pasta sheets, hinting at how loosely the dish can be interpreted.

Read more: A culinary guide to Bologna, from lasagne to Lambrusco

The aforementioned Accademia Italiana della Cucina defers to the Bolognese version, but many Italian regions have their own signature style, from Le Marche (with sliced truffles) to Molise (served in a broth). In Sardinia, lasagne is made with wafer-thin pane carasau (flat bread), which is also known as carta da musica (‘sheet music’) due to its sonorous crunch.
In Campania, the region surrounding Naples, you’ll find lasagne di carnevale. This recipe, made for a pre-Lent carnival blowout, calls for a rich tomato sauce with pork, ricotta, mini pork-and-veal meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, salami and local caciocavallo cheese. The ribs and sausage used to flavour the tomato sauce are often kept for the next course.
High days and holidays are lasagne’s natural preserve. Italy’s traditional meatless Christmas Eve meal, lasagne al forno, a speciality from the Dolomites, comes with spiced apples and nuts. And meatless versions are more common than you’d think. In the northern region of Liguria, lasagne Genovese substitutes ragu for the region’s exquisite pesto, made with the sweet leaves of the basil plants that thrive on coastal mountainsides, combined with creamy bechamel and topped with parmesan and pine nuts. Sometimes called lasagne alla Portofino, after Liguria’s jewel-like bay town, it’s just one of the countless plant-based versions that have seen the dish claim veggie and vegan fans. Across Italy, you’ll find roasted squash, lentils, and mushrooms as ragu ingredients, with milk alternatives such as almond often used for the white sauce, perhaps given a savoury flavour-boost with the addition of nutritional yeast.

Lasagne sheets, meanwhile, don’t have to contain egg. The preferred pasta of the Italian south comprises water, salt and flour, and plenty of shops sell dry versions, albeit without the spinach called for in the classic Bolognese recipe. You can make your own, perhaps adding nettles, the green that some say predates the use of spinach here. But those shop-bought dry pasta sheets (eggless or otherwise) are a win for home cooks. Unlike fresh egg pasta, they’re more likely to hold lasagne’s proud angular form, and ready-made sheets win back some prep time that can be spent perfecting the ragu and bechamel. Buon appetito!

Published in Issue 13 (autumn 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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