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The Americanization Of Lasagna
We Haven't Always Been Kind to This Great Italian Classic

By Candy Sagon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2000; Page F01

Poor, pitiful lasagna. What the heck happened when you got to America? In Italy, you were such a stud. Well-dressed, lots of attention to quality and detail, the star attraction at holiday feasts like Christmas, Easter, even weddings. Cooks would slave over you for hours. You were really something special.

But over here? Honey, you got common. And I mean that in the worst possible way. Sloppy, coarse and cheap. The culinary equivalent of a beer gut and a bad comb-over. And forget about being holiday fare. The Tuesday alternative to tuna casserole is more like it. And let's not even mention some of the tacky get-ups you tried. Tex-Mex lasagna? Please.

Can we undo the damage? Do we even want to? Frankly, lasagna lovers are divided.

But first, a little background.

Lasagna, in Italy at least, has never been an everyday dish. Those delicate sheets of fresh egg pasta, the complex sauces and ingredients for the filling--it better be a momentous occasion to be worth all that work.

That's why in the north's Emilia-Romagna region, lasagna has celebrated the birth of a girl. In Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot, it has been a tradition at Christmas festivities. And in the central farmlands of Marches, it has graced the table at wedding feasts and for special company, says Italian food expert Lynne Rossetto Kasper, who traveled throughout the country for her latest cookbook, "The Italian Country Table" (Scribner, $35).

To make things even more complicated, each region considers its style of lasagna to be the truly classy version amid all the other homely contenders.

Thin lasagna sheets layered with fragrant pesto and lightly baked is the delicate lasagna specialty of Liguria, says culinary historian Erica De Mane, author of "Pasta Improvvisata" (Scribner, $27.50). The Marches region, she says, goes to the other extreme with a famously rich lasagna that can include chicken livers, cream, Marsala wine, veal ragout, sweetbreads and sometimes truffles and mozzarella.

And, not surprisingly, sophisticated northern Italians consider the lasagna of Emilia-Romagna the true national standard-bearer, with its meaty Bolognese sauce and creamy bechamel mingling between translucent pasta layers.

The version we've managed to mangle in this country is the famous Neapolitan-style lasagna served at carnival (Italy's Mardi Gras). It's called Lasagne Imbottite (Stuffed Lasagna), with an emphasis on the stuffed. Layers of pasta are crammed with an extravagance of riches--tiny meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, sausage, mozzarella, ricotta, all held snugly in place with a slow-cooked meat ragout.

Virginia restaurateur Salvatore Esposito, owner of Pulcinella in McLean, grew up in Naples and remembers eating such big, rich, over-packed lasagna.

"The ragout sauce alone took four to five hours to cook," he says. His mother would make it with fresh ground beef and pork from a nearby farm. The pasta would be thin and homemade. And, most importantly, the lasagna would be served in small portions as a first course. "Nobody ate it as an entree like they do here," he says.

It was also an expensive dish to make, explains Esposito, because meat was scarce and costly in southern Italy. Families couldn't afford to serve lasagna very often. But a funny thing happened when Neapolitan immigrants--and their lasagna--came to this country during the immigration boom in the early 1900s.

"They discovered that meat was cheap and easy to buy," explains De Mane, the granddaughter of southern Italian immigrants. Granted, they couldn't find the same quality olive oil, mozzarella or tomatoes as in Italy, but they made do, says De Mane, even if the taste was somewhat compromised.

As the popularity of lasagna spread, more compromises were made as American cooks sought further ways to streamline and simplify the dish. Curly-edged dried lasagna noodles became as common as dried spaghetti. The hard-boiled eggs, sausage and meatballs were jettisoned. The long-simmered meat sauce became browned hamburger meat added to canned tomato sauce or, later, bottled pasta sauce. Ricotta not available? Use cottage cheese! Whatever works!

Everyone, it seemed, wanted to mess around with this classic. Even Julia Child couldn't resist. She presented a "Lasagne a la Francaise" on her cooking show in the early '70s and was, she admits in her book, "From Julia Child's Kitchen" (Knopf, 1975), roundly lambasted for it by Italian Americans who decried her suggestion that lasagna was a good place to use up leftovers. She, in turn, defended lasagna that was "freed from ethnic restrictions and limitations." (It also didn't help that she added, "We should be thankful to the Italians for having invented lasagna-shaped pasta, and to the French for their fine cooking methods that make such a splendid dish possible.")

Writing about this testy exchange in her landmark book, "The Taste of America" (Grossman Publishers, 1977), culinary historian and food critic Karen Hess wryly noted, "Improvisation is to be encouraged, but it requires a gift." Unfortunately for lasagna, not many have it.

A typical example: Gourmet magazine four years ago offered a stomach-boggling "Tex-Mex lasagna" recipe that included corn tortillas, chicken breasts, a can of refried beans, two 16-ounce jars of salsa and a bottle of beer. True lasagna lovers might consider drinking the beer and using the rest of the ingredients to make burritos.

Or how about the goat cheese/frozen vegetable/salsa lasagna that Kasper remembers (with a shudder) being served at a dinner party. "The hostess said she loved it because it was so 'quick.' Lasagna was never meant to be quick," Kasper grumbles.

So what kind of lasagna should we be making? Depends on whom you ask. You can almost hear legendary cookbook author (and northern Italian) Marcella Hazan sniff with disdain in "The Classic Italian Cookbook" (Knopf, 1982) as she lists all the ingredients spilling out of southern Italian-style lasagna.

Lasagna, she scolds, "is not intended as a catchall" for whatever ingredient you have on hand. The thin, delicate pasta should not be overwhelmed by a landfill of stuff jammed between the layers. The north's Romagna version, with a moderate amount of meat sauce along with a little bechamel to maintain moistness, is the ideal, she maintains.

But author Michele Scicolone, whose family is originally from southern Italy, argues that the northern version is just as heavy as its southern cousin.

"So instead of meatballs, they use Bolognese sauce with lots of meat. In its own way, it's just as rich as the southern style," says Scicolone, a Manhattan-based writer and author of "Savoring Italy" (Time Life, $40).

Not that she's such a great fan of the southern version either. In fact, she agrees with Hazan's description. "It is just an elaborate catchall kind of dish. Personally, I prefer my recipe for a green lasagna with a cheese filling and a light tomato sauce. It has a lighter feel to it."

A lighter, less dense approach to lasagna is what De Mane prefers as well. In Italy, she notes, there are many versions that are basically thin egg pasta sheets unfurled over one or two cooked vegetables and a simple sauce. Some aren't even baked. Genoa's pesto lasagna takes hot lasagna sheets and layers them with freshly made pesto. "It's free-form and fresh-tasting because the pesto remains uncooked," says De Mane.

That's all well and good, but forget about serving that here, says Esposito. Americans don't want authentic lasagna. They want American-style lasagna. He knows because he's been giving it to them for decades.

When he came to this country nearly 30 years ago and began working at downtown restaurants, Esposito's dream was to eventually open his own place and serve "real" Italian food, including the lasagna of his youth.

Now 54, Esposito is a charming, gregarious man who loves to talk. He could talk the red off a tomato. But when he opened his first restaurant in the Virginia suburbs in 1978, he could not talk his American customers into eating "real" lasagna.

He still can't.

"With that first restaurant, it took me six to seven months to realize Americans don't want Italian lasagna. They want everything runny. They want more plum tomatoes in the sauce. And they want lasagna to be their whole dinner. So," he says, "I'm not stupid. I make what they want. It's not the real thing, but it tastes good."

There is one thing he won't compromise on--the pasta. "Real lasagna, the pasta should be thin. Dried pasta is too thick," he says. So his chef at Pulcinella, Giuseppe Pansini, makes egg pasta from scratch.

But the rest--the meat sauce, the ricotta, the mozzarella--is thick and rich and tomatoey and closer to what Americans would make if they had the time and talent. And, not surprisingly, everyone loves the lasagna. It sells well at the restaurant and it's in high demand for school fund-raisers and other charity dinner events. Esposito, a generous, community-minded man, is happy to comply. As for his dreams of serving "real" lasagna, he's begun to do that, too, at some of the restaurant's regular wine dinners. At a recent one, Pansini made a 15-layer lasagna of tissue-thin egg pasta sheets sparingly filled with bechamel and Bolognese sauce "and some other secret ingredients he wouldn't tell me," Esposito says with a laugh.

Other than these special dinners, Esposito has no intention of fixing what ain't broke. His lasagna will stay Americanized and his customers will stay happy. So what if it isn't really authentic? There are times when it can work magic.

Last summer, Esposito and some of his staff from Pulcinella served a lasagna dinner to the children being treated for cancer at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church. A line of pale kids, many still hooked up to intravenous medication bags hung on tall IV poles, were given plates heaped with lasagna and garlic bread.

Was the food a hit? As one mother later told Esposito, her 9-year-old daughter hadn't eaten anything for most of the week. But that night, she happily came back for seconds. Of lasagna.

Tips From Those Who Know

So you want to make a truly terrific lasagna. Great. Here are some tips from the experts:

* Don't overbake it. The noodles are already cooked, as is the sauce, so it doesn't need a long time in the oven. You're basically just heating it through and giving the flavors time to mingle; cook it too long and it dries out. Author Erica De Mane recommends using a larger, shallower dish than the usual 13-by-9-by-2-inch pan to help the lasagna cook faster. Aim for a short time in a very hot oven, about 20 to 25 minutes at 425 degrees.

* Although bechamel sauce is traditional in both northern and southern Italian lasagna, restaurateur Salvatore Esposito says a simpler substitute for home cooks is ricotta that has been pureed to a smooth consistency in the food processor.

* The best lasagna has the thinnest pasta. If you're not going to make it yourself or buy it fresh, look for brands that have the thinnest dried noodles. Author Lynne Rossetto Kasper likes Italian artisan brands like Spinosi, Rustichella and Latini, if you can find them. Otherwise, the De Cecco brand is decent.

* Avoid the no-boil (so-called "oven ready") lasagna noodles. Baking uncooked pasta results in a heavier, drier lasagna because the cooking forces the pasta to soak up moisture from the filling.

* Don't overload your lasagna with too many ingredients. Choose one seasonal vegetable or one meat as the theme; add a sauce and a little cheese. Keep it simple. Keep the layers thin. And don't forget that you should be able to taste the pasta. It's not just there to be a shelf for a load of filling.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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