The Lasagne Lesson
I walked down a narrow alley, into a little courtyard off the via San Felice in Bologna, the Italian city so famous for its rich cuisine that it is sometimes called "la Grassa"—the Fat—and stepped through a door into the kitchen of a modest cooking school called Corsi di Cucina Sorelle Simili. The space looked not unlike a SoHo loft, with high ceilings, big windows with panes framed in black steel, and a low-key contemporary feel. There were piles of bowls and baskets everywhere, and one wall was hung with dozens of aprons. On one of the three four-burner Franke gas cooktops, a stockpot of water crowded with marrow-filled beef bones, chicken pieces, carrots and celery, an onion, and a hunk of parmigiano rind was roiling—on the way to becoming brodo di carne, a delicate meat broth, that would go into the day's bolognese sauce.
The owners of the school, sisters Margherita and Valeria Simili, have been making pasta since they were old enough to stand. They learned by watching their mother in the big kitchen at home in Bologna, then went to work for their father, Armando, who owned one of the city's best bakeries, making tortellini and other local specialties in his back room. Armando closed his bakery and retired in 1973, and the sisters opened their own shop in 1979.
In 1972, Marcella Hazan—then in the process of becoming the doyenne of Italian cooking teachers, in both Italy and America—and her husband and collaborator, Victor, met the Similis at a dinner in Bologna. They were impressed, and when the Hazans opened a cooking school there in 1976, they hired first Valeria and then Margherita to help teach. "Margherita in particular was there with me all the time," Marcella remembers. "She is very, very good with bread, focaccia, pizza, traditional desserts, and, of course, pasta. She's wonderful at closing tortellini. Do you know how many she can close in one minute? Forty-four!"
In 1986 the sisters, with Marcella's encouragement (and the equipment from her school, which she had by then moved to Venice), opened their own cooking school—on the via San Felice, the same street on which their father's bakery had once thrived. In 2001, at the age of 65 (they are fraternal twins), Valeria and Margherita closed the school. (It was just too much, they said; they will continue to teach, but not full-time.) Before they did, however, I visited them at their school, where they taught me—with infinite patience, calm skill, and irresistible enthusiasm—how to make the most famous and savory of all Italian baked pasta dishes (and one of the Similis' particular specialties): lasagne.
The very wide, flat pasta sheets known as lasagne (the plural of lasagna; a purist would argue that if you're eating "lasagna", you're getting only one sheet) have apparently been around since the 1300s, if not earlier, and the first Italian recipe for a finished dish that vaguely resembles lasagne as we know it today—the sheets are layered with ground spices and grated cheese—appears in a 14th-century manuscript called Liber de coquina, compiled at the Angevin court in Naples.
Today, lasagne is known all over Italy (the Genoese even make one with layers of pesto), but the rich, complex version typical of the region of Emilia-Romagna—and especially of Bologna—has become emblematic of the dish. This interpretation of lasagne, with its freshly made spinach pasta, its intensely flavored, meaty bolognese sauce, its silky besciamella (better known by its French name, béchamel), and its restrained sprinkling of cheese, is obviously the inspiration for the chunky, oozy party dish most Americans know as lasagne (or, more likely, lasagna). But it's a very different thing, more modest in stature, more refined in texture, more subtly flavored—as I was about to learn.