It might sound like a rhetorical question, but who does not like lasagne? No, seriously. I am waiting for an answer here. Traditional or innovative versions, with or without meat, this dish has travelled across the globe and conquered hearts and souls. Now as a VERY proud Neapolitan I hope you don’t mind if I share a minor detail – and I shall quote Wikipedia (the online source of all absolute truths… right?):
Lasagne originated in Italy, traditionally ascribed to the city of Naples, where the first modern recipe was created in the Middle Ages and published in Liber de Coquina (The Book of Cookery), and became a traditional dish.
Having clarified that… I am aware that every person in any country where this is a known dish will have been brought up with a special version of lasagne made by their mum or dad that is, and will always be, the best lasagne they will ever taste. This applies to Italian families, too. Every region has its own version, and every family will make it in a slightly different way.
The traditional Neapolitan-style lasagne has a substantial difference, though: there is no béchamel and no bolognese sauce. Shocking, eh? These are replaced by ricotta and a traditional Neapolitan ragù – if you love them, then this version of Neapolitan lasagne will truly and deeply delight you, your tastebuds and your soul. Yes, you heard me. Your soul.
Lasagne is by tradition a Sunday dish, but it is also made every year in February during Carnevale, on martedì grasso (Shrove – literally ‘fat’ – Tuesday). Because my mum and dad were always keen on seafood – typically spaghetti alle cozze, calamarata, linguine e vongole – on a Sunday, though, I did not grow up thinking of lasagne as a Sunday meal, but rather as the dish I would help my mum prepare on the day of Carnevale. My task was to make polpettine (tiny meatballs that would be part of the filling). Considering my small hands and over-enthusiasm, it was the perfect task for me… That was my initiation to lasagne!
I admit that I often make lasagne at the weekend, when we have friends over for lunch. When vegetarian guests are around, I will opt for the white lasagne (which I will share, too, some time soon). Although there are many variations, the one below is the one I will always fall in love with, over and over again. A triumph of flavours, goodness and a burst of happiness. I’m not sure poetry is among my talents, but that just came out. Forgive me!
Ingredients for lasagne napoletane
- 400g fresh egg lasagne sheets
For the ragù sauce
- 8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 6 Italian sausages (first choice: those with fennel)
- 1 average size onion, peeled and chopped finely
- 70ml dry red wine
- 230g passata
- Bunch of basil
For mini meatballs
- 250g beef mince (or pork if you don’t fancy beef)
- 1 egg
- A bunch of chopped parsley
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped finely
- 1 big slice of sliced bread soaked in milk and drained
- 2 tablespoons of fine breadcrumbs
- Salt and pepper
- 8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (to deep fry)
For extra filling
- 500g ricotta
- 500g buffalo mozzarella, drained
- 100g parmesan
Before starting to prepare the sauce, sieve the ricotta to remove the excess liquid. Chop the mozzarella and leave in a sieve, too, with a bowl underneath, to drain any excess liquid.
For the ragù sauce
Peel the onions and chop finely. In a large saucepan add the oil and cook on medium heat until hot. Add the sausages and seal the meat by browning it evenly for a few minutes on medium flame until a golden crust appears externally. Some crust will appear at the bottom, but do not worry as this will dissolve during the cooking and will add flavour to the sauce. Add the onions and a pinch of salt and cook over low heat until they soften and look translucent.
Add the red wine and let it evaporate (technically it is just a reduction, as the booze won’t disappear just like that!) on medium/high heat, stirring the content in the saucepan. Lower the heat, add the passata and enough salt to cover evenly the whole surface. (Salt is a complex matter. What is salty for some will be sweet for others. If unsure, the best tip is to add a little at a time and taste every now and then). Add fresh basil leaves, stir gently, cover with lid and let simmer for 2 hours. (The original recipe for the ragù is slightly different and takes over 8 hours of cooking but for this recipe, which only uses a small amount of meat, this time will do).
For the mini meatballs
Meanwhile, start on the meatballs. Mix the mince and all the other ingredients together to create a compact dough. Now comes the time to get your hands sticky. Oh wait – there is a way to prevent that! Keep your hands wet or add a drop of oil to your fingers. Out of the dough, make little balls, the size of a hazelnut, and distribute carefully on a large plate.
In a large frying pan add 8 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, warm it up and fry the mini meat balls until brown. Take them out and place them on a plate lined with kitchen paper to absorb excess oil.
Back to the sauce, two hours later: with the lid still on, increase the heat for a few minutes to thicken the sauce. This is a key step as the sauce needs to be well thickened; otherwise you will end up having runny lasagne, which is technically the only disaster that could happen when making this dish. So when no watery liquids are visible and the thickness of the sauce is even, you can take the pan off the hob and let it rest.
Take the sausages out and chop them into tiny bits.
Now everything is ready: the tomato sauce, the ricotta and mozzarella, the mini polpettine and the sausages.
In a bowl, mix a quarter of the ragù sauce with the ricotta and with the help of a fork mix it together roughly, taking care not to make it a smooth sauce as you still want to retain the texture of the ricotta lumps.
Depending on the lasagne sheets you chose, follow the instruction in the package. Some will require previous cooking, while others are ready to add straight as they are. But if you do preboil them, make sure you dry them properly with kitchen paper or a clean tea towel. I usually make my own lasagne sheets and they do not require previous boiling; it’s the same when I use fresh bought sheets, which are the ones I recommend for this recipe. So in principle, no preboiling.
In a large oven dish (I use the largest Le Creuset size, 32 cm), add:
– a layer of ragù;
– a layer of lasagne sheets to cover the whole surface;
– a layer of the mixed ricotta and ragù sauce (a large spoon is helpful for this);
– mini polpettine, chopped mozzarella and sausages;
– a sprinkling of more ragù sauce on top, and an even sprinkle of parmesan;
– another layer of lasagne sheets to cover;
and repeat the same operation for 3 layers. The fourth and final layer of lasagne sheets will be only covered by ragù sauce and parmesan, because it will seal the whole lasagne.
Heat the oven to 200˚C (fan 180˚C), cook in the middle of the oven for 30/40 minutes, or until a fork gets through the layers with no resistance, the edges are crisp and the top browned.
At this point you will be tempted to cut yourself a slice, but resist the temptation or it will be a mess. Let it settle for 30 minutes before serving, covered in aluminium foil and a large tea towel.
Then get ready for your triumph, if you are sharing this beauty with friends or family… I can tell you they are going to love you a little bit more!
If you are lucky enough to have some leftovers, lasagne keeps well and is even tastier the next day! Just warm it up in the oven at 150˚C, or if you are just dying to have it asap, use the microwave. It won’t be the end of the world!