Among Angelina’s generation, each of the female family members had a special dish that she was known for. My great-aunt, Angelina’s sister, who we called zi’-zi’ (loosely translated, ‘auntie’), was the ravioli specialist. Another great-aunt, zi’ Annin’, was known as “the little pie-maker” and yet another specialized in calzone pugliese, which we used to call ‘onion pie’. Angelina, on the other hand, was known for her lasagna, which was almost always a part of our ritual Sunday dinners at her place.
It was only later in life that I realized that the lasagna that Angelina made had a name, and was not really her lasagna, but a traditional dish from Campania, the region where she was born. There the dish is called lasagna di carnevale (also called lasagne di carnevale in the plural) since this meaty lasagna is traditionally eaten around Carnevale aka Mardi Gras time, as a last meat ‘splurge’ before the privations of Lent—a vestige of the days when Catholics were expected to give up meat for the entire 40 days. As I have mentioned before, this lasagna is one of the two ‘mother’ lasagna dishes in Italian cuisine, the rustic southern cousin to the North’s elegant lasagne alla bolognese. Since most Italian immigrants to the US came from the South, it is this lasagna that will be most familiar to Italian-Americans.
Angelina’s lasagna did have some subtle differences from the classic recipe, which I will point out later. But here is the way she made her lasagna:
Step 1: Make the ragù: This step should be done the day before, both because the ragù itself takes several hours to cook and because it tastes much better the next day. Angelina always used her signature ragù della domenica or Sunday sauce. Make sure that the ragù is not too thick—it should be quite loose—loose enough to pour easily—to account for evaporation as the dish bakes. Dilute with water if need be.
Step 2: Make the pasta: While lasagna di carnevale can be made with factory-made hard durum wheat lasagna, Angelina usually made her own fresh egg pasta (see this post for instructions). Unlike the pasta for lasagne alla bolognese, however, for this rustic dish you need to roll out your pasta rather thicker than usual; use setting ’4′ on most pasta machines. And I like to add a heaping spoonful of semolina flour for each 100g/1 cup of “OO” flour, to give the pasta a bit more ‘bite’. Cut the pasta into large sheets that will fit into your baking pan. (I usually make mine big enough so that two sheets of lasagna will cover the entire pan.)
Step 3: Make the polpettine: The lasagna is stuffed with, among other things, polpettine, or little tiny meatballs. You should use the same mixture of beef, pork, cheese, bread and seasonings as you would for polpettone, or Italian meatloaf (see this post for the recipe) but make the meatballs just as small as you possibly can, no more than 2-3cm/1 inch round, at most, smaller if you can manage it, remembering that they will be placed between the lasagna layers. Then shallow fry them in light olive oil until just golden brown. The recipe for zitoni al forno con le polpettine, or baked ziti, gives details on how to make these little meatballs.
Step 4: Fry the sausage (optional): In a classic lasagna di carnevale, the stuffing also includes long, thin sausages called cervellatine. They don’t make them outside Campania, as far as I know. If you don’t have them, you can either omit them and just use more meatballs, or cut up some ‘sweet’ Italian sausages and fry them in olive oil. (Or just slice up some of the sausages from the ragù.)
Little meatballs and sausage pieces, fried and ready for the stuffing
Step 5: Make the ricotta cream and cut up the mozzarella: Take ricotta cheese (250g/8 oz.) and mix it well with 2-3 eggs, lots of grated parmesan cheese and a good handful of chopped parsley.to form a kind of ‘cream’. Season with salt and pepper.
Take a large ball of fiordilatte (mozzarella made from cow’s milk) and cut it into cubes. (NB: This is one dish where expensive imported mozzarella di bufala is not really necessary or even ideal.)
Step 6: Cook the pasta sheets: Cook the lasagna sheets al dente, remembering that they will cook again in the oven. Since these sheets are thicker than the usual pasta and contain a bit of semolina, however, you will need to cook them for longer than other types of fresh pasta, say around 3-5 minutes, depending on how long they have been left to dry. If using factory-made pasta, follow the directions on the box. Do not crowd the lasagna or they may stick together; you may have to cook them in batches. When done, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and pat dry with a towel, taking care not to burn yourself with the hot water that will cling to the pasta sheets.
Step 7: Assemble the dish: In a large baking or ‘lasagna’ dish, which you will have greased with lard or olive oil, spread a bit of the ragù over the bottom. Then cover the bottom with a layer of pasta. Since these pasta sheets are rather thick, avoid overlapping them. (You may have to trim the pasta with a knife or a pair of scissors, but that’s fine.) Then cover the pasta with a generous layer of ragù. Top the ragù with the polpettine and, if using, the sausage pieces, and then with dabs of the ricotta cream here and there. (You can add more grated cheese if you like, but in Angelina’s version, there is ample grated cheese in the ricotta cream.) Then place another layer of pasta and repeat, until you’ve used up your ingredients. Top with a generous dusting of grated parmesan cheese and a nice layer of ragù. Drizzle with olive oil.
Step 8: Bake the lasagna: Bake your lasagna in a moderately hot oven (180C, 350F) for about 45 minutes, until the top is just beginning to brown. (Some like a nice crusty top, but I don’t and neither did Angelina.)
Step 9: Serving the lasagna: When done, remove the lasagna from the oven and allow to settle and cool for at least 30 minutes. In fact, Angelina almost always made her lasagna ahead and reheated it gently, which gave it a rather firm texture and allowed the flavors to meld beautifully. I still like it better that way.
NOTES: As mentioned above, Angelina’s version varies in a few details from the classic lasagna di carnevale as found in the ‘old country’. First, she always used fresh pasta made from soft flour, while it more usual to use hard-wheat pasta. In fact, according to J.C. Francesconi, author of the much respected La cucina napoletana, hard wheat pasta is actually preferable. Second, she used her ragù della domenica, made from pork ribs and sausages, while the traditional lasagna di carnevale, according to Francesconi, has a somewhat different ragù, made from a single piece of pork roast and some pancetta. And some folks prefer a lighter ragù, cooked only for a few hours, rather than the dark ragù, cooked for six hours or more, that Angelina used. Third, Angelina used the ricotta cream described above, mixed with parmesan and egg, while the usual traditional recipes call for ricotta only, or sometimes loosened with some water. milk or ragù.
And one thing that distinguished Angelina’s lasagna from most Italian-American lasagna you will find: she was very discreet in her use of cheese. Most Italian-American lasagna comes oozing with ricotta and mozzarella. Angelina’s was all about the ragù. And her use of a ricotta cream mixed with egg gave it a different, firmer texture. (There is, by the way, a delicious Neapolitan lasagna dish called lasagna alla ricotta, where cheese is the ‘star’, but that is a different matter.)
There are subtle variations also in the way that the lasagna can be assembled. Some recipes (including Francesconi’s) call for covering the pasta first with the ricotta, then adding the other cheeses and the meats, and lastly napping the whole with ragù. Other recipes call for mixing equal parts of ricotta and ragù together and layering this mixture on the pasta.
Francesconi also cites an interesting variation from Pozzuoli (a coastal town near Naples) where they add cut up bits of the local salami rather than the traditional cervatelline sausages and include hard-boiled eggs sliced into wedges. This is the version that is set out in another favorite cookbook, Napoli in bocca by Antonella Santolini. And in another delightful Neapolitan cookbook, Cucina napoletana: ricette raccontate, Martinella Penta de Peppo suggests using beef, rather than the more traditional pork, as a ‘lighter’ alternative for making the ragù. Rather than little meatballs and sausage, she suggests stuffing the lasagna with slices of the meat from the ragù rather than the usual meatballs and sausage, together with ricotta (loosened with a bit of water), ragù, mozzarella and grated parmesan cheese.