Americans think of lasagna as the name for a layered pasta casserole. Actually, the word lasagna means a wide, flat, long noodle; lasagne is the plural. In the north of Italy, lasagne are usually made from fresh, homemade egg or spinach pasta rolled into the thinnest possible strips of dough, because so many layers (between 10 and 12) are placed one on top of the other with layers of sauce or sauces and cheese in between. In the south of Italy, a pasticcio—casserole—of lasagne is most often prepared with semolina pasta, either homemade or hard, factory made. Southern Italian sauces are more rustic than the refined, creamy meat sauces typical of the north. In the South, soft cheeses, such as mozzarella and ricotta, are placed between the layers of pasta, whereas in northern Italian cooking, béchamel and grated parmigiano are used. No effort is spared when this dish is being prepared for carnevale, carnival festivities. It typically includes cooked sliced ham, tiny veal meatballs, and more sausages between the layers of pasta. Because what is commercially sold as “fresh” pasta in this country is not thin enough for a proper lasagne dish that contains many layers of pasta, and also because I find the flavor and texture of this imposter objectionable, I do not recommend using it. To make a classic lasagne with delicate, homemade pasta, see the chapter on Festive and Baked Specialties in my book Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking (Chronicle Books, 1987). For a quicker, more rustic lasagne dish, I offer this recipe of southern origin using hard, factory-made semolina noodles. The flavor of this dish is improved by preparing it in advance, or allowing it to cool and reheating it.
- ½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 medium to large onion, finely chopped
- 1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
- 1 large carrot, scraped and finely chopped
- 1 large stalk celery, including leaves, finely chopped
- ½ pound lean, sweet, fennel-flavored Italian pork sausages (about 3 links)
- 1 pound lean ground beef or pork
- 4 tablespoons tomato paste
- ¾ cup good dry red wine
- 1 can (28 ounces) tomatoes in purée, drained and coarsely chopped, purée reserved
- 1½ teaspoons salt, or to taste
- Freshly milled black pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons salt, for cooking pasta
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 pound dried lasagne or narrower lasagnette noodles
- 1½ pounds (3 cups) ricotta cheese
- good pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- 1½ cups freshly grated parmigiano
- ½ pound thinly sliced Italian salame, such as soppressata, diced
- 1½ pounds good-quality mozzarella, cut into very thin slices, or shredded
For the Sauce:
Soak dried mushrooms in ¼ cup warm water until softened, about 30 minutes. Strain liquid through a fine sieve; reserve. Chop mushrooms coarsely. Set aside. Heat olive oil and butter in a heavy saucepan. Add onion, garlic, parsley, carrot, and celery; sauté over medium heat until vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes; do not let them brown. Remove sausage meat from casings. Add it and ground meat to pan; sauté until lightly browned, about 8 minutes, breaking up meat with a spoon and mixing it with vegetables. Sauté gently another 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in reserved mushrooms and their liquor, tomato paste, and wine; simmer 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and their reserved purée; simmer gently, uncovered, until sauce thickens, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
For the Pasta:
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425°. Bring 5 to 6 quarts water to a rolling boil and add the 2 tablespoons salt, vegetable oil, and noodles. Stir immediately, continuing to stir frequently as noodles cook. Drain when slightly underdone (they will continue to cook in the oven), reserving 1/3 cup of the cooking water. Immediately rinse lasagne well in cold water to prevent noodles from sticking together.
For the Cheese:
Combine ricotta with reserved pasta water, nutmeg, and ½ cup of the parmigiano.
Smear the bottom of a 10- by 14-inch baking pan with a little of the meat sauce. Then place a single solid layer of noodles on top, without overlapping. Spread a layer of ricotta mixture on noodles, followed by a layer of sauce. Sprinkle with some of the salame, add a layer of mozzarella, then sprinkle with several teaspoons of the remaining parmigiano. Repeat layering until all ingredients are used up, ending with a layer of meat sauce strewn with mozzarella and parmigiano. Be sure to cover pasta with sauce to prevent it from drying out in the oven. Slide pan onto rack in upper half of preheated oven. Bake until lasagne is heated through and bubbly, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven and let settle for 10 to 15 minutes. Cut into squares and serve as a main course.