In Search of the Perfect Lasagne
In his quest to find a standard recipe for lasagne verdi alla Bolognese, JOHN MARIANI heads to Bologna and eats through layer upon meaty layer of the city’s iconic dish.
by John Mariani
It seemed an easy task. I wanted a recipe for the classic Italian dish lasagne verdi alla Bolognese, a creation as indelibly associated with Emilia-Romagna’s capital city of Bologna as Wienerschnitzel is with Vienna, Austria.
Yet aside from the requisites that lasagne verdi be made with green spinach pasta, meat ragù and besciamella (béchamel), I could find no definitive consensus on the recipe. Had this been a French classic, it would have a permanent place in Auguste Escoffier’s classic cookbook, Le Guide Culinaire, with ingredients dictated to the gram, and every French chef would follow it to the letter. But there is no such blueprint for lasagne verdi alla Bolognese in the Italian culinary lexicon.
I turned to the Italian cookbooks in my library. In her Classic Italian Cook Book, Marcella Hazan, who is from Emilia-Romagna, uses two cups of roughly chopped canned tomatoes in her ragù, as does Istrian-born Lidia Bastianich, who also adds tomato paste, in Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy. Older texts gave me no further enlightenment. The seminal cookbook La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiare Bene by Pellegrino Artusi, who was born in Forlimpopoli, near Forlì in Emilia-Romagna, contends the Bolognesi call their meat sauce a “dark broth,” made by sautéeing onions, carrot, celery and garlic with “poorer-quality cuts” of meat and “trimmings from the kitchen,” then adding one-and-a-half quarts of hot water and simmering it all for five or six hours. Adding split heads and necks of chickens will improve the sauce, he says.
The massive, 928-page La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy by the authoritative Accademia Italiana della Cucina offers a recipe for lasagne verdi that contains chicken livers, ground beef and pork all cooked in butter, and notes, “Any Italian knows that a cherished heirloom dish is sure to vary in its preparation, depending on who is in the kitchen. .... Thus while we have strived to present the most iconic version of key regional dishes, it is up to you, the home cook, to make them your own.” Hardly a sentiment you’d find in the French culinary bible Larousse Gastronomique.
Confused by all this questionable dogma, it seemed the best thing to do was to go directly to the source—the beautiful city of Bologna, long called “Bologna Grassa” (“fat Bologna”) for its rich and lavish food—and find out exactly how the best cooks in Emilia-Romagna make lasagne verdi. Before leaving, I contacted Mary Beth Clark, an American who runs the International Cooking School there, for some guidance. She recommended an array of trattorie, and told me to stay clear of others, warning, “The Bolognesi are very demanding people, and are very, very critical at the dining table. Everyone has an opinion on the proper lasagne, and everyone will have his or her own version, and of course, it’s the best!”
She went on: “If I may recommend for analysis, diagnose the layering and the size of the ragù ingredients. Touch the lasagne in various points on the top layer—check evenness for heat and oozing besciamella. Is it still cool in the center? Made fresh that day or stored and microwaved? It will be interesting to hear what the waiters say went into the ragù.”
Armed with a dizzying amount of conflicting opinion and recommendations, I flew to Italy and stopped in the Emilia-Romagnan city of Modena, where I’ve always wanted to dine at Osteria Francescana—this year the winner of three Michelin stars—run by the chef Massimo Bottura, whose hyper-creativity is driven by an intense personal history.
For every dish he makes, he thinks deeply about his own memories from childhood, his apprenticeship, and cooking with other modernist masters such as Ferran Adria of Spain. When I asked him if he served lasagne verdi, he paused, put his finger to his temple, and rushed off to the kitchen, returning an hour later with a plate of what looked like three pastry triangles.
“When I think of lasagne verdi alla Bolognese,” he said with the tone of a Dominican theologian, “I ask, what part does everyone love about it? And I remembered my mother’s lasagne and how I loved the crispy top that I could eat all on its own. So, that is what I made for you—a sandwich of crispy pasta with a little ragù and besciamella foam inside.”
I didn’t quite grasp what he was saying about how the sandwiching acts “like the cooling function of a Ferrari,” but on the side of the white plate was a thin ribbon of tomato in commemoration of red Ferraris, which are manufactured in Modena.
I took a bite and stared at him. “You’re right,” I said. “This is everyone’s favorite part of lasagne.” Yet Bottura’s brilliant riff was not the classic rendition I was seeking, so I pushed on to Bologna. Its historic city center is thronged with ristoranti and trattorie which, despite the summer’s heat, all had lasagne verdi on their menus.
My first evening in the city, I ate at the home of Ronnie Venturoli, a formidable red-headed woman in her seventies who is the self-proclaimed “regina di lasagne verdi.” She is part of a program called Home Food, an association that promotes the area’s gastronomic and culinary heritage, and through which visiting guests to Italy may, as I did, dine with one of their home cooks, called “Le Cesarine.”
Queen Ronnie, who has a voice that could cut through a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, served me two lasagne. One, her own creation, was made with artichokes, “for summer,” she told me. The other, her lasagne verdi—for which she uses twelve layers of spinach pasta rolled out with a long mattarello, a wooden rolling pin that’s two inches at its widest point and tapered at the ends.
“Dodici sfoglie! Twelve sheets like the Twelve Apostles,” she said. “I make them so thin you can see [the nearby mountain top sanctuary] San Luca through them.” Night had set in, so I could not test her claim, but these were indeed exceptionally fine sheets of deep green pasta.
Ronnie’s ragù was made with roasted beef, which she adds to the holy trinity of onions, carrot and celery that Italians refer to as “odori,” “battuto” or “soffritto,” and cooks in water, not fat, which came as a big surprise, with a little concentrate of tomato and a touch of sugar. After simmering it all down for three hours, she adds some olive oil and cooks it for three more hours. Then she layers the pasta sheets alternately with ragù and besciamella, tops it all with Parmigiano-Reggiano and brings it to a bubbling point when the besciamella pops through the last sheet of pasta. A little jetlagged that first night, I went to bed counting the Twelve Apostles until I fell asleep.
The next morning I attended La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese, founded in 1993 by Alessandra Spisni, a generous, gregarious woman devoted to spreading the gospel of Bolognese cuisine, who teaches students how to make everything from lasagne verdi to tortellini al ragù, as well as how to cut a pasta sheet into strings as thin as angel’s hair must be.
She told me that in Emilia the pasta is always made thinner than in Romagna, and that she only uses beef in her ragù, never pork, cut from the shoulder and neck, pushed through a coarse grinder, then sautéed in strutto (pork fat). She turned me over to Chowdhury Ashraf Uddin, who hails from Bangladesh and was once a student at La Vecchia Scuola. Now he’s a teacher who disproved the assertion I’d heard elsewhere that only a true Bolognese can make great Bolognese food. I was running low on cherished beliefs. How could something so iconic be so widely interpreted, with each cook claiming a sure degree of “authenticity,” the same way New Englanders declare no genuine clam chowder can include mussels?
Uddin showed me the small but important refinements that make the school’s version so delicate. First he chops the odori by hand—never in a blender, which extrudes liquid from the vegetables—then cooks it in strutto for about 20 minutes or more, until the carrots are done. Without adding any more fat, he puts the meat in the sauté pan and cooks it at high heat to brown it, then pours in one cup of red wine and one or two cups—measured by eye—of tomato passato (purée), with a little salt, but no pepper whatsoever. He adds a cup of water and cooks the sauce for two to three hours.
Meanwhile, he makes the besciamella by quickly thickening 90 grams of butter and 60 grams of flour, then adding one liter of milk and a grating of nutmeg, cooked over low heat until slightly thicker than heavy cream. He boils the sheets of spinach pasta, then dunks them in salted cold water. He layers five sheets of pasta with small amounts of the ragù and besciamella on each layer—“not too much of either ingredient,” he notes—then lavishes the top with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The completed dish bakes at 355 degrees for 45 minutes.
For lunch that day I returned to Pappagallo, a ristorante I hadn’t visited since it was in its glory days 20 years ago, a time when every celebrity, from Gina Lollobrigida and Claudia Cardinale to Sharon Stone and Lionel Richie, ate here and happily had their photo added to the walls of the dining room.
I had heard that changes in ownership had tarnished Pappagallo’s reputation, so I was delighted to find it a better restaurant than ever, thanks to their new 32-year-old chef named Riccardo Facchini, who has brought delicacy and new ideas to the traditional dishes that have always been served here, including, of course, lasagne verdi alla Bolognese.
His version, which I enjoyed along with a seafood taglioline, fritto misto of meats and vegetables, and a chilled bottle of slightly frizzante Leclisse Lambrusco, was made with a ragù based on pork, not beef, chopped with a knife, not ground, cooked in strutto. “In the old days, beef was too expensive, so pork would have been used,” Facchini explained. “Emilia-Romagna really didn’t use olive oil until the 1950s. The green of the lasagne was originally from nettles, but now spinach is used.”
As I’d been hearing again and again, the aim in modern Bolognese cuisine is to make it lighter but tastier, with less fat but more flavor drawn from the best ingredients from Emilia-Romagna, which has a mighty reputation for its eggs, balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma and more.
Facchini’s version was superb, the layers thin and artfully cut, the melding of ragù and besciamella consistent, and the topping crisp and fragrant with Parmigiano-Reggiano. I poked: heated through everywhere.
That evening I dined al fresco at a revered trattoria named Biassanot, a dialect word that means, roughly, “night eater,” and the place was packed until 11 p.m. with people feasting on such dishes as roast capretto with rosemary, gnocchi al Gorgonzola and lasagne verdi, its pasta rolled out very thin and with considerable pride. This rendering had five layers, and it was creamy but not overflowing with besciamella. I was beginning to learn that balance, not ostentatious display, was the key to lasagne verdi and that the Bolognesi go white at the thought of putting mozzarella, ricotta or tomato sauce on thick layers of pasta as they do in Southern Italian lasagne recipes.
With one day to go, I balanced the homier, more casual style of Biassanot with the elegance of lunch at Trattoria Anna Maria, which is now a quarter century old. The appropriately stout owner and chef Anna Maria Monari is not happy unless her guests are full and happy, and she loves nothing better than to go to tables and explain each dish on it, as well as those she’d like you to try. For example, her friggione, made with onions, green peppers and tomatoes cooked down to a chunky condiment perfect for spreading on the local flatbread called piadina.
Anna Maria’s lasagne, which is made daily and never reheated, starts with a ragù made with pancetta, thinly sliced lardo, or cured lard, two parts pork shoulder, one part beef, the former cooked first, the latter afterwards, in peanut oil. She adds half a glass of milk and cooks it until it is absorbed and, along with the odori, adds a bit of tomato concentrate, stirred in over a low flame. The ragù is cooked slowly for three hours until the fat comes to the top. She adds salt and pepper, but no wine. “Wine is for drinking,” she says. “It’s an old farmer’s tradition in my home of Sasso Marconi that children shouldn’t eat food with wine in it.”
I tasted the fragrant ragù on its own. It was deeply flavorful with only a hint of tomato and a perfect equilibrium of fat to lean in the meat, which is chunkier than other versions I’d had. There were five layers of pasta, and they were, surprisingly, yellow-white, not green. “I use very little spinach,” Anna Maria said. “And not too much besciamella. Lasagne used to be a Sunday dish and was made with seven layers, a holy, symbolic number. Nowadays, we make it lighter, with just five.” I finished with a signature Emilia-Romagna dessert, zuppa inglese, and began thinking about my last dinner in Bologna.
I had been staying at the well-named Majestic Hotel, so I dined that evening in their splendidly decorated ristorante named I Carracci, after the Bolognese family of baroque painters. There, sitting at a beautifully set table within walls faced with silk, beneath a gorgeous ceiling fresco, served by a staff who seemed to have an impeccable sense of pacing for a meal, I dined leisurely, beginning with a cup of cool gazpacho with whipped robiola and sea asparagus, then a plate of sliced culatello (a cured pork salume) with toasted brioche, followed by the inevitable, and last, lasagne verdi.
After all the versions—homemade, schoolmade, traditional and eccentric, lasagne with boiled beef, sautéed pork, red wine, no wine, twelve layers, five layers, but never any garlic—I still found that when I became hungry each day and evening, the idea of eating another portion of this dish was a welcome prospect. The flavors of the ragù, some with nutmeg, some without pepper, some spread with besciamella, others just dotted, made for a distinct taste always identifiable as lasagne verdi alla Bolognese, yet different enough to show the personal touch of those who made them.
I Carracci’s lasagne was the most beautiful of them all. It came in the round shape of an individual torta, its layers folding inward, and it was set in a little pool of remarkably light Parmigiano-Reggiano fonduta, just enough for each bite. When the captain came to ask how I enjoyed it, he eyed my clean plate and said, “Ah, the dish is talking for you.”
Four days of eating the dish revealed a few things: first, as you probably expected, I found no “classic” version, despite claims by many cooks that theirs was the only way to make it. Second, Bologna Grassa has lightened up its cooking in recent years, so that, aside from the requisite besciamella, few now cook the ragù in milk or add livers, coxcombs, unborn chicken eggs, nerve ganglia, porcini or truffles as they once did. Third, despite devouring so much lasagne at both lunch and dinner, I never left the table groaning with satiety. In fact, I found each lasagne remarkably light, owing to the extreme thinness of the pasta layers.
The next day, while flying back to the United States, I thought about all the lasagne I’d tasted and the recipes I was bringing back, and I realized that, with the exception of the wildly fanciful version I had at
Osteria Francescana, just about any of them would make a dish I proudly could serve my own guests and pronounce
a typical example of how they do it in Bologna. I could hardly wait to get home and cook.
Where to Eat
Massimo Bottura’s Michelin-starred restaurant. Via Stella, 22, 41121, Modena; tel. 059-210-118; osteriafrancescana.it.
This program allows visitors to dine with local home cooks—“Le Cesarine.” Broccaindosso Via 41, 40125, Bologna; tel. 051-220-797; homefood.it.
La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese
A cooking school that spreads the gospel of Bolognese cuisine. Via Malvasia, 49, 40131 Bologna; tel. 051-649-1576; lavecchiascuola.com.
This classic hub is making a comeback and returning to its former glory days. Via della Mercanzia, 3, 40125, Bologna; tel. 051-232-807; alpappagallo.it.
Trattoria “dal Biassanot”
A revered trattoria packed with diners well into the evening. Via Piella 16/a, 40126, Bologna; tel. 051-230-644; dalbiassanot.it.
Trattoria Anna Maria
The lush lasagne is made daily at this posh spot. Via delle Belle Arti, 17, 40126, Bologna; tel. 051-266-894; trattoriannamaria.com.
I Carracci Serves
their lasagne in individual torta portions in a pool of fonduta. Grand Hotel Majestic Già Baglioni; Via Alessandro Manzoni, 2, 40121, Bologna; tel. 051-222-049; grandhotelmajestic.duetorrihotels.com
© 2013 Quadratum USA. All rights reserved.