Finding a unique recipe for lasagna that can bring Italians together is very difficult, given the various regional variations and local variations. Nevertheless, lasagna is one of the pillars of Italian cuisine in the world – although some foreign variations have little Italian in their preparation and choice of ingredients.
Lasagna is Italian
Lasagna is indeed Italian and is a staple of Italian food culture. Let’s start by defining what lasagna is: it is the rectangular pasta sheet, whether it is made with or without egg. and here emerges the first big division, the one between the Emilia Romagna lasagna (with egg pasta) and the Neapolitan one (normal durum wheat pasta). These sheets are boiled, drained and arranged in layers, inserting between one layer and the other a filling that varies according to local traditions.
Each region has its own version and every “Italian mamma” who dedicates herself to the preparation of the lasagne makes her own very personal changes, thus incredibly increasing the number of possible variations.
The gastronomic tradition of each region has had a significant influence on the development of the local version of lasagna, making it a local quid: in mountain areas, for example, it is not uncommon to find mushrooms as a filling instead of meat sauce; in Sicily lasagna is very often stuffed “alla norma”; in Liguria pesto is obviously inevitable, while in Veneto the filling is prepared with red radicchio from Treviso.
In the Marches and Umbria, lasagne is enriched with entrails, becoming the “vincigrassi” – in which the sauce is enriched with chicken livers, sweetbreads, bone marrow, bovine brain or truffle; remaining in Central Italy, Sardinia also has an “anomalous” version of lasagne, in which instead of lasagna (pasta sheet) carasau bread is used.
Among all these variations, however, there are only two that compete for the title of Italian Lasagna in the collective imagination: that of Emilia Romagna and that of Campania.
If meat sauce (obviously with the due differences in cooking methods) and grated Parmesan cheese are common elements, the differences between two recipes are more consistent in number, so it is advisable to proceed in order, highlighting the most obvious ones:
In the Emilian version the egg pasta sheet is used, while in the Campania (traditional) version a sheet of durum wheat pasta and water is used, with no other additions.
The Neapolitan version mixes the meat sauce with fresh ricotta while the Emilian version uses béchamel sauce to bind the filling.
The lasagna from Campania has a greater “richness” of the filling, which includes (not necessarily all together) semi-hard cheeses, diced cold cuts, boiled eggs and fried meatballs.
This clash between the Campania version and the Emilian (or Neapolitan and Bolognese) version, therefore, opens up an “existential” problem for lasagna itself: where was the first modern lasagna invented?
The history of lasagna continues, and will continue through the hands of all those who prepare it, following the “official” recipe of Bolognese lasagna, the Neapolitan recipe or any other variation on the theme. What matters is that lasagna, which started from two points in Italy (Naples and Bologna), has become one of the gastronomic symbols of Italy in the world, especially in the United States.
This is certainly due to its goodness, but also to the incredible ability of Italians to take their traditions with them and transform them – when they want to – into strong points. The ability to make Italian cuisine appreciated in the world, transforming it into a real brand long before advertising, marketing and social networks existed, an ability in which the Bolognese people have been able to excel, deserving the palm of international recognition of the “Bolognese lasagna” as the lasagna.
Lasagne has a much older history than you might think: the first historical testimony dates back to a treatise, “De re coquinaria” (The culinary art) written by a careful Roman gastronome, Marco Gavio Apicio (25 B.C. – 37 A.D.), which speaks of “a lasagna made of thin sheets of dough stuffed with meat and baked in the oven”.
Lasagna appears more and more frequently in literature during the Middle Ages, as in this period by the poet Jacopone da Todi (Umbria):
“The majority of those who look thick
sometimes you deceive yourself.
Peppercorn wins by virtue lasagna.”
Another testimony comes instead from Tuscany, where Cecco Angiolieri also mentions lasagna in his writings:
“who makes lasagna out of other people’s flour,
His castle has no wall or ditch.”
Another quotation can be found in the texts of Brother Salimbene from Parma who, in his Chronicle, speaks of a monk:
“I never saw anyone who like him
would so willingly binge
of lasagne with cheese”
The advent of egg pasta in Central-Northern Italy dates back to the Renaissance, when the first historical evidence of Emilia Romagna is found. For example, in a recipe, dating back to the 14th century (contained in the Cookbook of the 14th century, printed in 1863 by Francesco Zambrini), there was an alternation of pasta and cheese: it is very likely that, from the union of this dish with the “ancestral” Roman lasagne, later in Emilia the modern recipe took shape.
But can we really call it lasagne, without the tomato sauce?
The tomato sauce is a “product” historically and typically from Campania, and in fact the first accredited recipe for lasagne with tomato sauce was published in Naples in 1881, inside the “Principe dei cuochi”, or “La vera cucina napoletana” by Francesco Palma.
Beyond the chronologies, lasagna has always played an important role in the Neapolitan culinary history – appearing for example in the “Liber de coquina angioino” (early 14th century), where they speak of lasagne boiled and then seasoned, layer after layer, with cheese.
Lasagna appears again in 1634 in “La lucerna de corteggiani” by Giovanni Battista Crisci, where the recipe for “lasagne di monache stufate, mozzarella and cacio” is present; the same recipe can be found as “Gattò di lasagnette alla Buonvicino” in the Trattato di cucina teorico pratica by Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino, published in 1843 in Naples.
Last but not least, an example of the link between Naples and lasagna is the nickname of Francis II of Bourbon (the last king of the Two Sicilies, on the throne from 22 May 1859 to 13 February 1861), who was called “King Lasagna” for his gastronomic passion for this dish – very much in vogue among the southern gastronomy lovers of the time.
To whom, then, should we attribute the invention of modern lasagna?
Most probably, after the Unification of Italy, Neapolitan lasagna “went up” the peninsula, spreading throughout the country, as can be imagined, since Pellegrino Artusii from Romagna, in his famous “Scienza in cucina” of 1891, does not mention Lasagna from Emilia.
It is very likely that the affirmation in the national cuisine of Emilia-Romagna lasagna is the result of the propaganda put forward by the restaurateurs of Emilia-Romagna from the beginning of the 20th century, who codified its “modern” recipe, including béchamel sauce, and lighter than the Neapolitan version, rich in meat and boiled eggs.
The triumph of the Emilian version is with the inclusion of the “Bolognese lasagna” in Paolo Monelli’s “Ghiottone errante” (1935), an inclusion that sanctioned the official recipe for this dish and its “branding”.
Northern Italian Lasagna Recipe
- 350 grams of minced beef
- 100 grams of pancetta (or bacon, better if smoked)
- 400 grams of passata sauce
- 100 ml of dry white wine
- 1 Onion
- 1 Carrot
- 1 Celery stalks
- 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- Prepare the Bolognese sauce.
- Clean, wash and mince with the mixer, onion, carrot and celery.
- Separately, dice the pancetta or bacon and then finely chop it on the chopping board.
- Transfer the bacon into a saucepan, and let it ‘sweat’ gently over very low heat for a few minutes, so that the fat melts. Add the oil and the chopped vegetables, which you will wither for 7-8 minutes, turning occasionally so that they do not darken too much; halfway through, add a pinch of salt.
- Turn up the heat, add the minced meat and brown it for 4-5 minutes; pour in the wine and let it deglaze, stirring gently. Add salt, add the tomato pulp, bring back to the boil and lower the heat to a minimum.
- Put the lid in half and continue cooking for at least 2 hours, adding a little boiling water when necessary, because at the end the sauce must be dense but always soft and creamy; towards the end of cooking adjust salt and pepper.
- Pour a small amount of sauce and a couple of tablespoons of béchamel sauce into a baking tray, spreading them well on the bottom. Form a first layer of lasagne, pour a few tablespoons of meat sauce and béchamel sauce on top and sprinkle with plenty of Parmesan cheese.
- Using this procedure, make further layers until all the ingredients have been used up. Finish with a layer of béchamel sauce and Parmesan cheese and bake the lasagne at 200°C for about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, leave to rest for about ten minutes and then serve.
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