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In Search of the Perfect Lasagne Verdi - By John Mariani

Food & Wine | Restaurants

It seemed such an easy quest: I just wanted a recipe for one of the few Italian dishes that might be pronounced a classic-- lasagne verdi alla bolognese, a dish as indelibly associated with Emilia-Romagna’s capital city as Wiener schnitzel is with Vienna and  salade Niçoise with Nice. Yet aside from the requisites that lasagne verdi should be made with green spinach pasta, meat ragù and besciamella, asserting anything more definitive would be like denoting that in all thousands of Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child the Madonna will always be dressed in red and blue and the Child will be chubby. I didn’t quite expect that about lasagne verdi.

Pulling down authoritative Italian cookbooks from my shelf showed I was off to a bad start. In her Classic Italian Cook Book (1962), Marcella Hazan, who is from Emilia-Romagna, uses two cups of roughly chopped canned tomatoes. Professorial Tuscan Giuliano Bugialli insists on using chopped pancetta or prosciutto and beef broth for the ragù in Bugialli on Pasta (1988). I then turned to the massive, 928-page La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy by the authoritative Accademia Italiana della Cucina, which 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”--not a sentiment you’d ever read in the French culinary bible Larousse Gastronomique--followed by a recipe for lasagne verdi that contains chicken livers, ground beef and pork, all cooked in butter.

Older texts gave me no further enlightenment. The seminal cookbook La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiare Bene (1891) by Pellegrino Artusi, born in Forlì in Emilia-Romagna, contends that the Bolognesi call their meat sauce a “dark broth,” made by sautéeing onions, carrot, celery and garlic with the “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. Confused by all this questionable dogma, it seemed the best thing for me to do was to go directly to the source—the beautiful city of Bologna, long called “Bologna La Grassa” (“fat Bologna”) for its rich and lavish food—and find out exactly how the best cooks in Emilia-Romagna make lasagne verdi. This is the region that gave the world  Parmigiano-Reggiano, mascarpone, mortadella, cotechino, grana padana, Prosciutto di Parma, tortellini, tagliatelle, and, of course, lasagne all bolognese. Four days of eating the dish did  reveal a few things: first, as you probably expected, I found no “classic” version of the dish, despite the claims by many cooks that theirs was the only correct 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 many lasagnes at both lunch and dinner, I never left the table groaning with satiety.  In fact, I found the lasagnes were remarkably light, owing to the extreme thinness of the pasta layers.


Before leaving for Bologna, I contacted Mary Beth Clark, an American who runs the International Cooking School there, for some guidance. She recommended an array of trattorias—and told me to stay clear of others—warning me that, “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! 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 – even for heat and oozing besciamella. Is it still cool in the center? Made fresh that day or stored and micro-waved? 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-Romagnian city of Modena, where I’ve always wanted to dine at Osteria Francescana--this year the winner of three Michelin stars--run by the bearded Chef Massimo Bottura, whose hyper-creativity is driven by an intense personal history.  So 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 by 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” (right).
 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 right there 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 on a classic dish was not what I was in search of, so I pushed on to Bologna, whose historic city center is thronged with ristoranti and trattorie,  which, despite the summer’s heat, all had lasagne verdi on their menus.
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That evening, however, 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 Homefood, described as an “Association for the protection and increase of the value of typical gastronomic and culinary legacy,” through which visiting guests to Italy may, as did I, dine with one of their  home cooks,  called “Le Cesarine.”
 Queen Ronnie, who has a voice that could cut through a wheel of Parmigiano, served me two lasagnes, one, her own creation, made with artichokes—“for summer”--the other lasagne verdi (left), for which she uses twelve layers of spinach pasta rolled out with a long mattarello. “Dodici sfoglie! Like the twelve Apostles,” she said. “I make them so thin you can see [the mountain of] San Luca through them!” Night had set in, so I could not test her contention, 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 and cooks in water, not fat, which came as a big surprise, and 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 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 till I fell asleep.
 The next morning I attended La Vecchia Scuola Bolognesi, founded in 1993 by Alessandra Spisni (below), a generous, gregarious woman devoted to spreading the gospel of Bolognesi cuisine, teaching students how to make everything from lasagne verdi to tortellini al ragù as well as how to cut a sheet of pasta into strings truly as thin as angel’s hair must be. She told me that in Emilia, Bologna’s region, the pasta is always made thinner than in Romagna, and that she uses only beef, never pork, cut from the shoulder and neck, pushed through a coarse grinder, then sautéed in strutto (pork fat).  She then turned me over to Chowdhury Ashraf Uddin, who hails from Bangladesh and was once a student at La Vecchia Scuola, now a teacher here who disproved to me the assertion I’d heard elsewhere that only a true Bolognese can great Bolognese food. I was running low on cherished beliefs. 
Uddin showed me the small but important refinements that make the school’s version so delicate. He first hand chops the odori mix of onion, carrots, and celery—never in a blender, which extrudes liquid from the vegetables—in strutto for about 20 minutes or more till the carrots are cooked through. Without adding any more fat, he puts the meat in a 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 (puree), with a little salt, but no pepper whatsoever. He adds a cup of water and cooks 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 scraping of nutmeg, cooked over low heat until slightly thicker than heavy cream.  He boils the sheets of spinach pasta then dunks them into salted cold water. He then 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, the completed dish to be baked at 180 degrees for 45 minutes.
   

For lunch that day I returned to a ristorante I hadn’t visited in twenty years, when it was in its glory days, a time when every celebrity, from Gina Lollabrigida and Claudia Cardinale to Sharon Stone and Lionel Richie, dined here and happily had their photo added to the walls (below) of the dining room at Pappagallo.   I had heard, however, that changes in ownership had tarnished Pappagallo’s reputation, so I was delighted to find it a better restaurant than ever, thanks to a brand new, 32-year-old chef named Ricardo Facchini (left), who has brought delicacy and new ideas to the traditional dishes that have always been served here, including, of course, lasagne verdi.

His version, which I enjoyed along with a seafood taglioline and 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,” explained Facchini, “and 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 of the region, 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. 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 at least until eleven p.m. with people feasting on dishes like roast capretto with rosemary, gnocchi al Gorgonzola, and lasagne verdi, its pasta rolled out very thin and with considerable pride. This rendering was five layers in height, 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, and tomato sauce on thick layers of pasta as is the case in Southern Italian lasagne recipes.

With one day to go, I balanced the trattoria style with one of great posh.  At lunch I ate with gusto at Trattoria Anna Maria, now a quarter century old, where the appropriately stout owner/chef Anna Maria Monari (left) is not happy unless her guests are full and very happy, and she loves nothing better than to go to tables and explain every dish ordered and those she’d like you to try. Like her friggione, made with onions, green peppers, and tomatoes cooked down to a chunky condiment perfect with the flatbread  called piadina. 
        
Anna Maria’s  lasagne, which is made daily and never reheated, begins with a ragù made with pancetta, thinly sliced lardo, 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 of onion, carrot, and celery, and adds a bit of tomato concentrate, stirred in over a low flame.  The ragù is cooked slowly for three hours till 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, 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. The pasta layers number five, and they were, surprisingly, yellow-white, not green. “I use very little spinach,” said Annamaria, “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 off with an Emilia-Romagna signature dessert, zuppa inglese, and began thinking about my last dinner in Bologna.
        
I had been staying at the very well-named Majestic Hotel, so I dined there that evening in their splendidly decorated ristorante named I Carracci (right), named after the Bolognese family of baroque painters.  There, sitting at a beautifully set table within walls faced with silk, beneath a gorgeous ceiling fresco, and served by a staff who seem to have an impeccable sense of pacing for my meal, I dined leisurely, beginning with a cup of cool gazpacho with whipped robiola and sea asparagus, then a plate of sliced culatello with toasted brioche, followed by the inevitable, and last,  lasagne verdi. 
        
After all the versions—homemade, schoolmade, traditional and eccentric, lasagnes with boiled beef, sauteed 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 another portion of this dish that I’d found in so many variants was still a welcome surprise. The flavors of the ragù, some with nutmeg, some without pepper, some spread with besciamella, others just dotted, still made for a distinct taste always identifiable as lasagne verdi alla bolognese but 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 fondue, 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.”
   

While I was ferreting out the best lasagne in Bologna, I took in the city's food culture, which is very rich and very well dispersed throughout the city, including a wonderful food market venue called Via Pescerie Vecchie--The Old Fish Street--lined with bakeries, fresh pasta shops, chocolate shops, salumeria, seafood stores, and trattorias. At Aperi they serve only crudi, uncooked seafood.  At Il Sole (below), the chalkboard menu outside lists all the fish of the day and people sit at communal tables and eat whatever the kitchen sends out, with a degustation of seafood,  all brought in that morning, all at a remarkably low price. At Simoni (left), the city's best salumeria, the walls are hung with fat prosciutti, the glass cases lavished with dozens of salume, and the place is packed from the moment it opens, with Bolognesi lined up to buy their daily supply of the meats that make Emilia Romagna so famous.
    
I passed an al fresco trattoria (below) where tables were filled with charming young Bolognesi students who just got out of classes for the long lunch that is part of the Italian culture. They were feasting on prosciutti and bread, olive oil and pastas, cheese and red wine. Then I thought at the ubiquitous awfulness of school cafeteria food and fast food eateries on American campuses.  It was a perfect dichotomy to describe why Italians choose to enjoy life to the fullest at every opportunity.  Maybe someday I'll send my grandchildren to the University of Bologna.
 
        
The next day, flying back to the States, I thought about all the lasagnes I’d tasted and the recipes I was brining 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 lasagne I proudly could serve my own guests and pronounce it to be a very typical example of how they do it in Bologna.  I could hardly wait to get home and cook.
    
As the plane took off,  I reclined my seat, opened the newspaper and read that a restaurant in Krakow, Poland, had just set a Guinness World Record for cooking the biggest lasagne ever, weighing 4,800 kilograms, cooked for ten hours, and sliced into 10,000 portions.  The report didn’t given a recipe, but I thought it was a nice touch that the restaurant made it in the town square for the visiting Italian football team.
 
This article first appeared in a shorter form in the September issue of La Cucina Italiana.

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