I’ve never really been the type to stay glued to the latest Hollywood gossip or eagerly thumb through chatty tabloids, but I have always held a deep interest in celebrities who are such forces of nature that they’ve become mononymous — so famous they only have to go by one name. Whether we’re talking about Prince’s over-the-top talent and extravagance, Sting’s migration from pop star extraordinaire to tantric yoga advocate, or the scores of mononymous women who have shapeshifted the music industry like Cher, Madonna and, of course, Beyoncé, it’s hard not to feel like bowing down in the face of cultural icons so mighty that a single moniker can be their entire calling card.
When it comes to Italian cuisine and, specifically, Italian pastas, there’s really only one dish that unlocks the superstar level of mononymous fame wherever it graces a menu in the United States: lasagna. This multilayered majesty has found pop culture notoriety across the generations, from its prized position as the favorite snack of comic strip kitty Garfield (who describes it as “nature’s perfect food”) to Weird Al Yankovic, who dedicated an entire parody song to the dish, sung to the tune of “La Bamba”:
You want-a some-a lasagna magnifico?
I know-a you like, I know-a you like
Sure, spaghetti is a top-billed star of the Italian-American canon — and pizza’s reputation, of course, can’t be touched — but in both cases, you’re going to have to get into a little bit more detail in order to truly understand what you’re eating. Is the spaghetti with marinara or meat sauce? Are there meatballs plopped on top of the dish or no? What kind of toppings are on the pizza? Is it anchovy or Hawaiian-style? Famous as they are, their very form prevents them from reaching true mononymous status.
With lasagna, though, the collective, much-lauded culinary image of the dish across the U.S. is more or less the same: layer upon layer of ruffled noodles; creamy ricotta; a rich, meat-and-tomato ragu slurry; and molten mozzarella — stacked high, one atop the other, and baked to create a jam-packed meal so decadent that a single square of the stuff from a casserole dish can serve as a complete meal.
In Italy, though, lasagna isn’t exactly the one-name wonder we’ve grown to embrace in the collective American consciousness. Instead, it’s the kind of dish that, to use a classic Walt Whitman line, contains multitudes: a family tree of flavors and techniques as divergent and dissimilar as aunts by marriage or third cousins once removed.
Lasagna — or, as it’s known in Italy, lasagne — refers specifically to the type of flat, wide, occasionally wavy noodle used to create the dish. Made traditionally using semolina flour and eggs, lasagne noodles throughout Italy bear little resemblance to the thick, often toothsome, dry pasta sheets that so often find their way into the dish in the U.S. Instead of being the dish’s afterthought — a mere sedentary layer in the archaeological dig between more flavorful meat and dairy ingredients — these silken sheets are perhaps the star.
“Properly made lasagne consists of several layers of delicate, nearly weightless, pasta spaced by layers of savory, but not overbearing, filling made of meat or artichokes or mushrooms or other fine mixtures. The only pasta suitable for lasagne is paper-thin dough freshly made at home,” writes the godmother of Italian cuisine in America, Marcella Hazan, in her book, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. “It might take a little more time to run pasta through a machine than to go to the market and buy a box of the ready-made kind, but there is nothing packed in a box that can lead to the flavor of lasagne you can produce in your kitchen. Using clunky, store-bought lasagne may save a little time, but you will be sadly shortchanged by the results.”
Lasagna is also, perhaps, one of the oldest forms of pasta in the noodle history books. Most culinary scholars believe that the word “lasagne” is derived from the Ancient Greek laganon, which referred to a type of flattened-out dough cut into strips and eaten as a sort of unleavened biscuit. Like so many pillars of Western civilization, the Greek tradition was wooled around as it made its way into Roman culture, resulting in lasana or lasanum: a version of the baked pasta dish we know and love today. Famed Roman epicure Apicius even included a lasagna-style recipe in the pages of his seminal work of ancient gastronomy, Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome, which featured popular Roman dishes from around the year 40 A.D.
In this classic work of Latin scholarship, Apicius describes creating a ragu of sorts from “pieces of cooked sow’s udder, pieces of cooked fish, chicken meat and similar bits, minced uniformly, seasoned well and carefully.” He then goes on to describe a lasagna-like layering process (“now prepare layers of [meat] and pancakes one on top of the other”) and then instructs to bake the stacked dish until bubbling hot.
And while chicken, fish and udder (thankfully) don’t co-mingle in any Italian regional variation today, there’s a local lasagne tradition that will suit every palate.
The best-known lasagne variation, and the one from which most Italian-American versions draw their inspiration, is the Southern Italian iteration from Naples. Lasagna Napoletana, also known as Lasagne di Carnevale due to its traditional role as a celebratory meal eaten during Carnival season, is nothing short of a glutenous delight. Sheets of rippled lasagna noodles (lasagne ricce) are layered with hunks of sausage; hard-boiled eggs; a tomato-heavy, pork-laden sauce; fluffy ricotta and — wait for it — meatballs. Because when you’re trying to really blow it out before Lent, go big or go home, right?
In Northern Italy, though, the lasagne — specifically, the type that hails from around Bologna — is a bit less focused on stuffing everything-and-the-kitchen-sink into the dish and, instead, is keen on the integrity of a few key details: the pasta itself (which often includes spinach), a well-made béchamel sauce and a beefy ragu (or Bolognese) that’s created using a whole garden’s worth of minced vegetables.
For Nick Lama of Avo in New Orleans, it’s this pared-down, Northern Italian style of lasagna that’s served as inspiration for his über-popular riff.
“A lot of people make their lasagna with ricotta cheese like in Southern Italy, and most of the classic Creole-Italian places in New Orleans do this, too, because of their Sicilian [Southern Italian] roots. But with my lasagna, I decided to go with a Northern Italian béchamel, then elevate it by adding in braised short ribs instead of the traditional ground meat Bolognese. Lasagna takes on so many different shapes and forms, and there are so many different ways they make it across Italy, that it really ends up being about what kind of ingredients are available and what’s fresh in the region,” Lama explains.
Maybe it’s time each of us starts experimenting a little bit more with all the variations Italian lasagne has to offer, whether it’s trying out the prosciutto, liver and truffle-flecked variety from the Marche region, or going green with the fresh pesto-layered lasagne from the town of Liguria. And don’t worry: No matter how many of the diverse Italian versions we try in our home kitchens, lasagna as we know it in the U.S. will always be there, the Adele of Italian-American dishes: single-named, notorious and proud in the spotlight.