Uncovering Italy’s Superlatives in people, places and things

Loving Lasagna, an interview with Massimo Bottura

“There is never enough lasagna …”

Massimo Bottura

Cornering Lasagna

In 1995, Massimo Bottura iconised the world’s most beloved comfort food in just a corner piece. His world renown dish The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna is a declaration of love to Italy, a celebration of everyone’s favourite comfort food and centuries of tradition compressed into a single bite.

While historians debate the origin story of lasagna to either ancient Greece’s laganon, flat dough sliced into strips, or ancient Rome’s lasana or lasanum (a pot or container), the city of Napoli holds claim to having created lasagna, inking the very first recipe in the 14th century while Bologna perfected the traditional lasagne alla bolognese– stratified layers alternating between thin pasta sheets (flour, egg and spinach), ragù and béchamel, sprinkled with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and then baked. ISSIMO sat down with Bottura to find out why everyone loves lasagna and what inspired him to create that unforgettable corner piece.

What is it about lasagna that makes everyone love it so much? Why is lasagna so beloved and world recognised?

Lasagna is not just food, it’s an emotion. It tells the centuries-old story of family traditions and the celebration of artisan ingredients. Lasagna is a labor of love. Everyone can feel the passion and the time it takes to make a lasagna. A tray of lasagna also represents generosity and humility. It says: “Take a seat at the table. There is enough here for everyone.”

The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna” iconised the very best part (the corner) into an edible art piece. What inspired you to make this? 

When my mother would pull out the tray of lasagna from the oven, my brothers and I would crowd around the kitchen counter fighting over the burned corners of the pan. These four bites, one for each corner, express the essence of the lasagna flavour as well as the emotional part of the dish. Kids know much better than adults that those corners are the best part of the lasagna and capture the essence in a flash.

To re-create this memory, we are serving at Francescana at Maria Luigia, our new culinary experience featuring the most iconic dishes of our 25-year history, a thin sheet of pasta that is fried, toasted and seared. It sits on a traditional hand-cut meat ragù with a foamy besciamella sauce on top. The tricolour pasta looks as though it is about to fly off the plate like a bird about to take off!

The crunchy part of the lasagna. Credits Marco Poderi
The crunchy part of the Lasagna – Francescana at Maria Luigia. Credits Marco Poderi

It is an edible art piece! Can you tell us a little about the colours?

Colours are an essential means of communication. Through colours we can give light and life to our memories, in our dishes. Osteria Francescana’s new tasting menu, With a Little Help From My Friends is a triumph of colours and light because this menu is a rebirth, a new life, new energy for all of my team but also for our clients.

The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna is also a colourful dish, green, white and red, in a tribute to Italy and its traditions revised with a twist. We honour our past, but we always look at it in a critical, never nostalgic way, taking the best of the past and bringing it into the future.

We’ve watched and listened to T Magazine’s video of you making lasagne and it is truly an audio sensory treat. Can you talk a little about the emotional aspect to the process of making lasagna – both for the chefs and the viewer?

Our dishes come to life from our childhood memories with grandmothers and mothers cooking our Sunday lunch. Our work is about finding the most appropriate way to share our past, so that it can live and survive through time in a constant work of resilience. And also live again through flavors and stories shared through an unforgettable culinary experience. This is something that the viewer can see, and feel, with multiple senses, even from a distance.

Finally, why is that Emilia Romagna cuisine is the ultimate comfort food?

Emilian culinary traditions are not comfort food in my opinion. The taste of Emilia is the taste of centuries of flavours that create the perfect umami. If you think about the slow ageing of balsamic vinegar that can take 25 years to be ready to use or the 24 months it takes to make a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, you realise that these are extreme artisan products that master craftsmen. The flavour of a tortellino is the flavour of prosciutto, Parmigiano, and egg pasta. It is all about the quality of the ingredients. When I was a kid I would hide under the kitchen table while my grandmother folded tortellini. As the flour fell around me, I would steal the tortellini she was making for us when she wasn’t looking. I would pop them into my mouth raw and chew for a very long time until all the flavour was drawn out. I cannot replicate that moment I relive it again and again every time I bite into a tortellino.

Osteria Francescana. Credits Nicole Marnati

Though retired from the Osteria Francescana line up, the Crunchy Part of the Lasagna is one of the signature dishes at Francescana at Casa Maria Luigia.

As told to Erica Firpo.

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