We are a house divided. We are a house divided when it comes to Lasagna that is. My wife and youngest prefer the one common in the south of Italy while my oldest and I prefer the luxurious northern version. Recently I figured why not please everyone? Why not make both and let peace and awesome Italian pasta casseroles reign? So, what is the difference? Well, they are both properly called “Lasagna al Forno” meaning oven-baked Lasagna. So they both have lasagna (the actual flat noodle) and both are baked in the oven. They both have cheese and a sauce (and I am simplifying and generalizing quiet a bit here because really any dish of Lasagna noodles baked in the oven is a Lasagna al Forno).
The southern version has a sauce of tomatoes and meat. Most often the meats (sausage, meatballs, beef chunks, or ground beef or maybe a combo) are cooked in the tomato sauce to make a Neapolitan ragu before getting layered in the casserole with the noodles, ricotta cheese and mozzarella. First an foremost though, for me, what distinguishes this type of Lasagna from the northern version is the emphasis on the tomato sauce.
Now, the northern version is that of Bologna, the region (Emilia-Romagna) rich with dairy, pork and fat. It’s where so many delicious foods come from like Prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and true balsamic vinegar. The Lasagna Bolognese is richer with a thick meaty Ragu Bolognese. It does not use ricotta and instead gets its creamy component from Balsamella, aka Bechamel sauce made from flour, butter, milk and seasoned with a pinch of nutmeg.
To make the Bolognese meat sauce I follow a basic template I learned from Mario Batali that includes starting with finely minced pancetta, garlic, onions, carrots, garlic and celery. I like using a food processor for that to get them very fine so that they can almost melt into the sauce. For the meat I use at least two types (usually veal and pork). I get the vegetable mixture cooking very gently in olive oil and butter before stirring the meats in.
The only tomato in this sauce is a few spoons of tomato paste that gets added in with fresh thyme, white wine, a Parmesan cheese rind (yes, just like it sounds. I save those hard ends from the cheese I buy) and whole milk. The ragu simmers very gently for a couple of hours or more until everything is tender and the flavors are well melded. The end result is a thick meat sauce that is definitely on the drier side when compared with a typical tomato pasta sauce.
The sauce for the Neapolitan style lasagna contains a couple of cans of San Marzano tomato, onions, basil, oregano, garlic and -this time around for the sake of time saving- ground beef. It is a delicious sauce and tastes lighter and fresher because of all the tomato, aromatics and herbs.
To assemble the process is similar for both casseroles. A bit of sauce on the bottom followed by noodles, sauce, ricotta or balsamella, cheese (a mix of mozzarella and Parmesan), noodles,….I like to finish with a thin layer of sauce (or blasamella in case of the Bolognese) and some more cheese. I bake the dishes covered at first to get everything bubbly and cooked through then I uncover for the last 20 minutes or so to get the cheese and top browned. As for the noodles themselves, unless I made fresh egg pasta for the dish, I never boil them anymore. For dry pasta I just let them soak in water for about an hour. They hydrate and get soft and pliable. I make sure the built lasagna is slightly on the “juicy” side so the noodles cook perfectly as the dish bakes.
Now the hardest part is to…wait. After the dishes are baked they need to rest for a good 20 minutes. They need to settle down, cool slightly and set a bit. This will, not only make them easier to eat, but also much easier to portion and cut out cleanly without the layers falling apart. Yes, two of those are a lot of baked noodles for the four of us, but Lasagna are excellent leftovers. So we enjoyed these for a couple of more days and everyone was happy.