Lasagna is as well known an Italian dish as spaghetti and meatballs. There are many different ways to make lasagna. In southern Italy lasagna is made with a rich ragu meat sauce either of pork or beef and ricotta cheese. In northern Italy they make lasagna with a Bechamel sauce. Each region has its own version of lasagna. Some people put hard boiled eggs in their lasagna, others add tiny meatballs.
In Sicily, where my family comes from, there is a version of lasagna that hails from my father’s town of Ragusa. There they mix all the ingredients of a rich tomato sauce loaded with pork and pig skin, ricotta, and caciocavallo cheese in a large pot with the lasagna noodles. Everything is mixed together before they layer it in a large roasting pan. Laying down the first layer they cover it with more sauce and cheese, then lay down the second layer topping it with additional sauce and cheese. Then they bake it.
My version has the same ingredients but I build my lasagna the classic way with the noodles, ricotta, sauce and more noodles. Either way, it all taste good! As my son Joseph says, it all gets mixed up in the end.
My family always made lasagna for special occasions or holiday dinners. This was not a dish we expected on a Wednesday evening, unless it was leftovers. Lasagna would even accompany our Thanksgiving dinner. Like the turkey with everything else was not enough food. Christmas dinners, baptisms, communion parties, important company, all warranted lasagna as a first course dish. We would mix it up every now and again with some manicotti, they both were held in high regard as a proper first course. I guess if the Pope ever came to visit we would have both lasagna AND manicotti.
- 1 box of lasagna noodles
- 1 pound of Italian sausage, casing removed
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 28ounce cans of San Marzano peeled tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup red wine
- 1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
- 7-8 fresh basil leaves chopped
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- 1 15 ounce container of whole milk ricotta cheese
- 1 pound of whole milk mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 1/2 cup grated Romano cheese
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
My grandmother used pig skin in her tomato sauce which she cut into thin strips and added back to this sauce. I did not include this in the recipe. If you want the added flavor and richness of the pig skin you can add it to the sauce while cooking, then cut it into thin strips and incorporate it back to the sauce.
Remove the casing from the sausage and brown in a large pot or dutch oven breaking up the sausage with your spoon into small pieces.
Add the chopped onions and cook till onions get soft. Add the garlic and cook about two minutes. Add the red wine and cook down for two minutes.
Puree the canned tomatoes and add to the pot with the sausage meat. Rinse each can with 1/4 cup of water. Add some water to the tomato paste and stir well. Add the tomato paste to the sauce. Stir in the basil and bay leaf. Simmer on low flame uncovered for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for salt and pepper, keeping in mind that the sausage meat has plenty of salt and pepper.
In a large bowl beat together the ricotta, mozzarella cheese, Romano cheese, eggs, and parsley. Add a pinch of salt and black pepper. Set aside.
In a large pot bring about 5 -6 quarts of salted water to boil and cook the lasagna till tender stirring occasionally, about 8-9 minutes.
Drain the cooked lasagna and put back in the pot that you cooked it in. Add a laddle or two of the cooked sauce to the lasagna noodles and mix well. This will keep the noodles from sticking together. Stir the noodles to help cool so you don’t burn your hands when you assemble the lasagna. Rinsing your hands with cold water helps.
You are now ready to assemble your lasagna.
In a 13×9″ baking dish pour a ladle of sauce covering the bottom. Remove and discard the bay leaf when you find it.
Place 4 or 5 lasagna noodles over the bottom, slightly overlapping. If the noodles don’t go all the way to the end of the pan place a couple of noodles in the opposite direction to fill that space.
Spread 1/2 of the cheese mixture over the lasagna and cover with a good layer of the meat sauce. Repeat layers, noodles, cheese mixture, sauce.
Cover the last layer with remaining noodles and sauce. You should have three layers of noodles and two layers of the ricotta cheese. Sprinkle the top with plenty of Romano cheese. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes in a 400 degree oven. Place the baking dish over a cookie sheet in case the sauce bubbles over. Remove the foil and bake an additional 10 minutes at 375 degrees.
Let cool for 10 minutes before cutting.