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Falling in Love with Lasagne alla Bolognese

Lasagne alla Bolognese (photo by Francesca Bruzzese)

Lasagne alla Bolognese (photo by ©Francesca Bruzzese)

As much as I love living in Rome, my favorite Italian city is not the home of the Coliseum and Piazza Navona, but rather up North, in the land of tortellini, porticos, and la torre Asinelli* – Bologna, Italy. This may seem surprising. After all, Rome is the capital, the Eternal City, one of the most iconic places in the world. Though Bologna may not boast the history and grandeur of Rome, it holds a great amount of sentimental value for me. I spent my junior year of college there, living in a homestay, attending the Università di Bologna, and took language courses. I perfected my Italian, traveled all over the country, and formed friendships with the many people I met along the way, and quickly adopted Bologna as “my” city. Though I already knew I loved Italy before this, my year in Bologna solidified this for me, and made it clear that my love affair with Italy had only just begun.

Friends and language aside, Bologna gave me another great gift – the opportunity to explore, learn about, and enjoy its cuisine. Though food is good wherever you go in Italy (really, you can’t go wrong) some say that Bolognese food is the best in all of Italy, and I would be inclined to agree.

The recipe that I am sharing with you today is for lasagne* alla Bolognese, one of the mainstays of Bolognese cuisine. Everyone has their own recipe for lasagna. In the U.S you’ll find lasagnas made with mozzarella, ricotta, or even cottage cheese, lasagnas with pesto, cream sauce, tomato sauce, vegetables, or chicken. While lasagna certainly lends itself well to interpretation, I wanted to share the more authentic, Bolognese version of lasagna, which I happen to think is the most delicious one there is. The classic lasagne alla bolognese consists of sheets of homemade pasta layered with a meat sauce called ragù,* béchamel, and freshly grated parmesan cheese. Compared to some American recipes I have seen, this is kind of a pared down version of lasagna – the emphasis is not so much on the cheese but rather on the ragù, which is the star of this dish.
I first learned how to make this lasagna thanks to a cooking course I enrolled in while living in Bologna. I remember working with my fellow classmates to put together the different components of the dish – chopping the vegetables for the ragù, grating the cheese, rolling out the fresh pasta – and feeling like I had won a culinary gold medal once we put all of the elements of the dish together to make what was the best lasagna I had ever tasted.
Though this dish may seem time consuming, fear not – the ragù is just a matter of chopping, mixing, and simmering, the béchamel comes together in a snap, and then all that remains is a little layering and baking. I have used premade noodles here to keep this dish home-cook friendly as well. The hardest part will be waiting for the lasagna to be cool enough to eat. This is a true crowd pleaser (who doesn’t like lasagna?), a good way to combat the cold this time of year, and perfect if you’re feeding a large group. Enjoy!

Lasagne alla Bolognese

Ingredients for Ragù:

  • 1 carrot, peeled and chopped
  • 1 celery rib, chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 can crushed tomatoes (28-32 ounces)
  • 1 1/4 pounds ground beef
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Pepper

For Béchamel:

  • 3 tablespoons of butter
  • 3 tablespoons of flour
  • 3 cups whole milk
  • A pinch of salt

For Noodles and Cheese:

  • 12 sheets no-boil lasagna noodles
  • 2 cups freshly grated parmesan cheese


Heat some olive oil in heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat and sauté the carrot, celery, and onion and cook, until softened but not browned, about 4 minutes. Add the ground meat and cook, breaking the meat up as much as you can with a wooden spoon. Stir in the crushed tomatoes and salt and pepper. Bring the ragù to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low and cook until sauce is thickened, about 30 minutes, stirring to make sure the sauce doesn’t cook too much on the bottom. Season to taste with salt and pepper if needed. Transfer the sauce to a bowl and let cool to room temperature.

While the meat sauce cools, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat and whisk the flour. Let the flour and butter cook for a minute or so, then whisk in the milk and bring it to a bubble. Add the salt and let the milk mixture cook a few minutes more, or until the béchamel is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon.

Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees F. Mix 3/4 cup of béchamel into the ragù until thoroughly combined.

Spread a little of the ragù over the bottom of the baking dish. Place the pasta sheets in a single layer on top of sauce, positioning them to fit the pan (I usually do two horizontal pieces and one vertical piece). Spread 1 cup meat sauce evenly over the pasta, and drizzle with some béchamel, about 1/3 cup. Sprinkle some Parmesan over the béchamel, about 1/3-1/2 cup. Repeat this layering of the pasta, ragù, bechamel, and Parmesan cheese 3 more times. Place final 3 pasta sheets on top of the lasagna, and cover completely with remaining béchamel and Parmesan. Note that you may not use all of the ragù.

Spray a large sheet of foil with nonstick cooking spray and cover lasagna; bake until bubbling, about 30 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil and continue to bake the lasagna until the parmesan and béchamel have browned, about 10-15 minutes. Let the lasagna cool a bit before slicing and serving. Enjoy!

*The Torre degli Asinelli was built in the 11th century. Named after the family that commissioned it, it is over 97 metres, making it the tallest in Italy.
**In Italian, lasagna is plural, as are all types of pasta (this makes sense, actually – lasagna is composed of more than just one layer of pasta). Therefore Italians use lasagne, with an “e.”
***Ragù is another mainstay of Bolognese cuisine. It is classically served over tagliatelle, or in lasagna. Though every recipe varies (there is no one definitive recipe for ragù) it is a sauce made with carrots, onions, celery, tomato, and meat. Every recipe is different; some are heavier on the tomato than others, some use beef while others use a combination of beef, pork, veal, or even pancetta; some recipes use white wine, others red, and some use milk. The recipe used here is the one that I like best, but feel free to experiment to find your ideal ragù recipe.


About Francesca Bruzzese

Francesca Bruzzese is an avid cook and baker who has been living in Rome, Italy since 2011. A Rhode Island native with Italian roots, you can usually find her in the kitchen making dolci to bring to her colleagues at work, developing new recipes to add to her repertoire, or planning her next dinner party. In addition to contributing recipes and articles to Eating Italy Food Tours, she also has a food blog, Pancakes and Biscotti (www.pancakesandbiscotti.com).