Lasagna has withstood the evolution of restaurants and changing tastes. But even though it’s reliable and satisfying, the old school staple of red sauce joints probably won’t cause any double takes. But because it’s full-on comfort food for diners, this multilayered dish serves as a creative vehicle for chefs. The standard construction of meat sauce, pasta sheets and mountains of cheese remains vital, offering plenty of room to innovate and update without disrupting restaurant food costs or diverting from standard ordering. Many of the ingredients are apt to be on hand and can be parlayed into a menu star.
“The great thing about it is people understand lasagna,” says Chef Brian Arnoff of Kitchen Sink Food & Drink in Beacon, New York. “It opens the door for a dish that’s not as familiar but more exciting.”
The Don Angie in New York City revamped its presentation by simply constructing the dish differently. Béchamel, cheese and sauce are spread onto a sheet of curly pasta, rolled and sliced. The slices, which resemble rosettes, are simmered in red sauce and accented with mascarpone. Offered as a dish for two (or for the table), it sells for $65.
At Marcella’s Lasagneria in San Francisco, the mainstay is traditional: six ultra-thin layers of pasta are layered with béchamel, Parmigiano-Reggiano, mozzarella and tomato sauce. But then the restaurant mixes it up with options such as Sicilian eggplant; Bolognese; mushroom; butternut squash, verdura with pesto, zucchini and dried tomatoes and white wine with pancetta and onions.
Whether you choose a different presentation or swap in ingredients, lasagna can be transformed in innumerable ways. Think of the layering approach – the backbone of lasagna – to see how far this menu classic can take you.
Brian Arnoff draws influences from the places where he’s worked, whether it’s the East Coast, Southeast Asia or Europe, to create a menu. But if he’s thinking lasagna, the dish won’t be limited to its Italian roots. Instead his current location, the Hudson Valley in New York where Kitchen Sink Food & Drink is located, will come into play.
“I’ve always wanted to open something that’s unique for us,” he says. “And that’s meaningful when you know that your customers are the same people who are growing your ingredients.”
Creating fresh-tasting lasagnas helps to achieve that goal. The braised pork in his lasagna features pork and swiss chard raised nearby. The béchamel is made with milk from the local dairy, while the greens that garnish the plate are also grown within a few miles.
Ingredients can be swapped out when the seasons change or when Arnoff reaches to past gigs for inspiration.
PREP: Arnoff didn’t like the standard ring mold sizes he needed for cutting circles from house made pasta sheets, so he had them made to his specifications. The 3.5-inch ring molds are also used to build the lasagna.
PRO TIP: Main components from bestsellers can be deconstructed and layered into a freeform lasagna. “There’s no limit,” says Arnoff, “to what you can create.”
APPEAL: The construction of the dish allows diners to see each layer. Arnoff’s tweaks to classic lasagna for the winter months – warm spices in the béchamel, boldly flavored braised meat and smoked provolone – also resonate with diners, he says.
By using egg-dipped and fried slices of zucchini, Carla and Christine Pallotta swapped out pasta for vegetables long before gluten-free and plant-based dining became lifestyle choices. The dish is as comforting as the classic version but offers a twist that follows the mantra of the concept behind the Boston restaurant Nebo Cucina & Enoteca: family-inspired classics that “we love to eat.”
PREP: The $25 zucchini lasagna is served in individual portions, allowing the kitchen to prep the dish in advance. Let portions come to room temperature throughout services or par bake to cut time. Look at the dish’s ordering history to prevent food waste.
PRO TIP: The dish is gluten-friendly (the lasagna slices are lightly dusted with flour) but becomes gluten-free by using rice flour or gluten-free flour instead. Make sure to properly drain and cool the fried zucchini so it stays crispy before compiling.
APPEAL: Familiarity sells especially when a vegetable leads the ingredient list. Although “healthy-ish,” the dish still teams with ricotta, Romano and mozzarella cheeses. But its big claim to fame? It’s the dish that won “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” the Food Network show.
GREAT DINING EXPERIENCES COME IN THREES
When Christian Frangiadis returned to Pittsburgh a few years ago to open Spork, he was older and wiser, intent on making restaurant decisions based more on business rationales rather than ego. He remained committed to freshly made ingredients, from house-baked breads to fresh pasta, but also considered how best to fill seats on Monday nights.
“Yes, your food is terrific,” he says, “but what else can you offer on a night where everyone is recovering from the weekend?” His recommendation? Offer diners a solid deal built around a beloved favorite, like lasagna. Every Monday, his chef-driven shareable menu offers three types of lasagna paired with wine and salad for $25.
PREP: The trio of options are similar, but vary enough to ensure the dishes are distinguishable. Unique presentations are also important, which is why a lasagna might be made in a hotel pan and sliced, baked as a single serving or constructed freestyle.
PRO TIP: Some diners rarely deviate from the standard, which means a classic version should be included. Thinking beyond the expected should drive a version, while another lasagna could check the box for local and seasonal.
APPEAL: Dishes that are only made available on certain days increase demand, especially when you run out. But it’s a delicate balance because you don’t want to alienate or frustrate diners. Frangiadis expresses his passion for lasagna with a classic Bolognese and a three-cheese basil lasagna made with house-made spinach noodles. For the winter, the seasonal one works in toasted butternut squash as well as with spices that pair well with cold weather, such as cinnamon and nutmeg.