Learn about how the popular Lasagna got its shape and the birth of its many variations.
Ordering a lasagna Bolognese in Italy might leave some Americans a bit surprised by the dish placed before them. The traditional recipe layers lasagna noodles with a meaty ragú and creamy, white besciamella sauce, a very different recipe than the lasagna Bolognese served in America where the layers of noodles alternate with tomato sauce, meat, mozzarella, and ricotta cheese.
Lasagna in America has become synonymous with baked casserole, but that isn't necessarily the case in Italy. Sheets of lasagna are the oldest pasta shape, and the term refers to the noodle rather than a specific dish. As far back as ancient Rome, flour and water were mixed to form a pasta-like dough. In the southern region of the Italian peninsula known as Magna Grecia, the dough was shaped into sheets called lagana, but contained less gluten than modern lasagna. Gluten, a stretchy protein created by kneading dough, provides pasta with its unique texture.
The flat, rectangular lasagna noodles common today grew in popularity during the Renaissance era, a period when agriculture flourished and wheat became plentiful. Pasta played such an important role in society at the time. Guilds of lasagna makers were formed to ensure the quality of manufacturing, protect supplies, and local sumptuary regulated consumption.
Still, even though lasagna noodles began to resemble modern shapes, people at the time ate the noodles somewhat differently than today. A 14th-century cookbook, the Liber de Coquina, describes baking the pasta sheets in the oven to form small cakes. But one innovation was cooking lasagna, and pasta generally, in boiling water. In ancient Rome through the dark ages, lasagna was braised in liquids, but nobody had yet thought to simply cook the pasta in boiling water. The cooking times then were still much longer than they are today, and most recipes called for soggy noodles rather an al dente pasta.
Another big change to lasagna occurred when cooks began to vary the width of the lasagna noodles naming each width to distinguish them – names like Tagliatelle, Taglionlini, Fettuccine, and Linguini. These narrow bands of flat pasta are all cut from sheets of lasagna. The differences between these pasta types are relatively minor. Since 1972, Tagliatelle is officially 8mm (about ⅓ of an inch) wide as registered with the Academia Italiana Della Cucina. By contrast, Taglionlini is a mere 3mm (or 1/10 of an inch) – literally fractions of an inch difference.
The pasta names also vary by city. For instance, Fettuccine is more common in Rome, but it's more or less the same as Tagliatelle, the undisputed champion in Bologna. The Bolognese still take pride in their tagliatelle, the only shape Bolognese Ragú should be served with. Rachel Roddy asserts in "An A-Z of Pasta: Stories, Shapes, Sauces, Recipes," that the famous Bolognese Tagliatelle was created to honor Lucrezia Borgia around 1500. Like many Italian pasta myths, this one might be nothing more than a legend – the humorist Augusto Majani is also credited with concocting the fairytale as recently as 1931.
Long, flat pasta is not the only use for lasagna. Fresh sheets of lasagna also serve as the foundation for many stuffed kinds of pasta. The first ravioli began with lasagna noodles laid flat, a small amount of filling, added, and finally another sheet of lasagna covering the pasta before crimping off each ravioli. Ravioli first appeared in the northern kingdoms of Italy in the Renaissance era as lasagna became popular, but by the 19th century had become widely consumed across the peninsula with regional fillings developed based on local ingredients. Typically, the term ravioli indicates the pasta has been stuffed with cheese while agnolotti refers to fillings made from meat or other ingredients. The distinction is less common in the United States where most people simply say ravioli for meat or cheese.
Another stuffed pasta that begins life as a lasagna sheet is cannelloni, the hollow tubes of pasta stuffed with meat or cheese. Italian Americans invented the term manicotti, often pronounced “manigot,” to distinguish the cheese-filled cannelloni from those with meat. The reason why this distinction was made is unknown, but the phrase translates roughly as "baked hands," and references the wool muffs women often wore in the mid-twentieth century to keep their hands warm in winter. Manicotti is not a pasta shape known to Italian cooks.
By far the most popular way to eat lasagna in America is baked in the oven, or “lasagna al forno” in Italy. Lasagna al forno is a cooking style with many different recipes rather than a specific dish. Lasagna Bolognese is one variety, but every region has a unique combination of ingredients. For instance, Neapolitans often bake Lasagna di Carnevale to celebrate Fat Tuesday. The baked lasagna is filled with the foods forbidden during the Lent fast like meatballs, sausage, and hard-boiled eggs.
A century ago, immigrants in America found they had much to celebrate. The foods of festivals that they had eaten once a year soon became common staples. Lasagna was no exception, and by the 1920s and 1930s, Italian American restaurants were already serving baked lasagnas inspired by holiday celebration recipes, rich with meat ragú and sausages.
The standardization of an American-style lasagna began during the convenience food craze of the 1960s. Stouffer's, better known at the time for restaurants than frozen food, launched a line of casseroles, including the frozen lasagna. The lasagna sold better than the casseroles Stouffer’s introduced, and the product helped mainstream dish as an American favorite.
The one thing that doesn’t change though is whether you’re eating a stuffed ravioli, fresh tagliatelle, or oven-baked lasagna, the noodles you’re eating are the result of two millennia of Italian pasta history.
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.