- Lasagna: Square or rectangular sheets of pasta, which are cooked, inter-layer with other ingredients and baked.There are many many variations.
A few years ago a film was made about a meal — it wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last, but in this case the restaurant where it all took place was Italian, and the main dish was a timpano, which is a rich pasta dish that’s baked in the oven. As one might expect, the film spawned a great flurry of recipe requests on the Rec.Foods.Cooking newsgroup that were met with all sorts of tasty-looking responses. Some hewed fairly close to what was pictured in the film, with sausages and hard-boiled eggs mixed in with the pasta, while others went much farther afield. The variety was fascinating, but didn’t come as a surprise.
As anyone who visits Italy rapidly realizes, pasta may be the national dish, but it’s not a monolith: In adapting it to suit local traditions and ingredients, the cooks of the Peninsula have produced an infinite variety of forms and preparation methods. While many of these dishes are quickly made, there also special occasions that beg something more, and then the idea of combining cooked pasta and other ingredients to produce a sort of casserole that can be heated through in the oven becomes quite obvious.
The best-known of these dishes is of course lasagna, which also serves to show how much pasta al forno varies from region to region: Tuscans and Emilia-Romagna make it with béchamel sauce, sugo alla Bolognese, and grated Parmigiano; Ligurians make it with pesto sauce and serve up as a refreshing summer dish; Calabrians (among others) use ricotta Salata (salted ricotta); and Neapolitans produce extraordinarily sumptuous Carnival lasagna with ricotta and a variety of other ingredients.
Beyond lasagna the variety becomes infinite: Almost any kind of pasta except thin-stranded spaghetti, which would overcook, can be used as a base for pasta al forno (baked pasta). Nor is the choice limited to plain pasta and sauce; in many dishes the pasta is baked in a piecrust (at which point the recipe is a pasticcio di…). Perhaps the most extraordinarily rich of these dishes, true festival food that’s perfect in the dead of winter, is the Emilians pasticcio di tortellini. But you needn’t wait the winter months — there’s something for every season, and every sort of occasion too.