The trick with fan favorites is delivering on the promise of taste memory while thrilling with twists and signature takes — as long as those twists work. Lasagna is a potluck regular, a secret recipe held tightly by grandma–– and an opportunity for operators. It’s a comfort-food all star, but needs a bit of reinvention to add menu distinction.
When executed well, lasagna is more than the sum of its parts. At its core, it’s a layered dish with pasta, sauce and cheese. Traditionally, it’s a Bolognese sauce, ricottamixture and cheeses. But really, the term lasagna can be loosely assigned to any layered pasta dish, or even one that borrows the ingredients and puts them on a pizza. Just ask the operators featured here.
At 43-seat La Piazza al Forno in Glendale, Arizona, the Chicken Pesto Lasagna outsells its classic Baked Meat Lasagna. “It’s something different, and it’s really, really good,” says its owner, Rachel Piazza. Created by her father-in-law and a menu staple since the restaurant opened in 2007, it’s a four-layered lasagna starring chicken and pesto. Traditional lasagna sheets are topped with a mixture of chicken breast, pesto, ricotta and mozzarella. After four layers, the lasagna is topped with mozzarella and baked. La Piazza prebakes the pans of lasagna, then slices for service. For a 12-ounce portion, diners pay $10. The food cost runs at 30 percent.
Fratello’s Italian Grille, with three units throughout New Hampshire, offers a traditional lasagna, but adds a layer of pepperoni, making it signature with just the simplest of twists. It also menus a seafood lasagna, starring lobster, shrimp and scallops.
“Our seafood lasagna is really popular. It’s been on our menu for nine years, so it’s a regular feature on here,” says kitchen manager Robert Clifford. Although not as stellar a performer as traditional lasagna, the seafood lasagna earns its rightful place on the menu. “The price point is higher because of the seafood, but it’s definitely a unique item on our menu that our diners love,” says Clifford.
Clifford builds the seafood lasagna with a foundation of a lobster cream sauce (sherry wine, shallots, lobster, cream and butter), lasagna noodles, ricotta filling (eggs, herbs, cheeses and ricotta), another layer of noodles, seafood and sauce, shredded mozzarella and another duplicate layer. He finishes the lasagna with shredded mozzarella and prebakes it. He pulls the lasagna out of the oven, portions it for service, then warms up slices per order. Diners pay $21.99 for a portion. The food cost runs at 30 to 35 percent.
“The trick to a successful lasagna is to make sure all of your layers are thin, and that you bind the ricotta mixture with eggs, so it’s not too liquidy,” he says. For Fratello’s traditional lasagna, he starts with a house made Bolognese sauce, layer of noodles, ricotta fi lling (same as one in the seafood lasagna) and a layer of pepperoni. He adds another pasta layer, more ricotta filling, more Bolognese sauce and shredded mozzarella and Parmesan. The lasagna sells for $13.99 and runs a 20-percent food cost.
At Lorenzo’s de Mesilla in Mesilla, New Mexico, owner Lorenzo Liberto adds a local twist to his classic Italian lasagna –– Hatch green chiles. The result? It is the No. 1 selling pasta dish at this Italian restaurant. “My Sicilian grandmother would roll over in her grave if she knew I put green chiles in her recipe, but it works,” says Liberto. “It adds a really fresh taste of chiles that’s not too spicy, but that showcases our local chile.”
He puts the lasagna noodles down fi rst, then adds the ricotta mixture (ricotta, seasoned ground beef, house made sugo and green chile). A layer of mozzarella follows, with a bit of sugo (caramelized onions, garlic, olive oil, tomato, spices and fresh basil), and more ricotta mixture. After four layers, he prebakes it in the oven, portions for service, adds a bit of Pecorino and sugo over top. For a 12-ounce portion, Liberto charges $12.75. The lasagna comes with salad and fresh Sicilian-style flatbread. He runs a food cost for the lasagna of 30 percent.
Brick 3 Pizza in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has captured the familiarity and popularity of lasagna and put it on a pizza — a really great selling pizza. “Our Lasagna Pizza is the second or third best seller out of our 32 pizzas,” says Figo Akcay, partner and general manager of this 52-seat shop that specializes in New York-style pizza.
The newly opened restaurant (April 2009) landed on a simple recipe for this best-seller: the pizza is topped with ground beef, cheddar, Parmesan cheese and mozzarella. That’s it. “It tastes great, but it’s really not a complicated pizza,” says Akcay. “People like the novelty of it, I think. They know what a lasagna tastes like, and then you add that to pizza … well, it works.” Diners pay $16.45 for a 14-inch pie. The food cost runs around 20 percent, depending on the cost of ground beef.
Double-Layered Cajun Lasagna
1 pound andouille sausage, quartered and sliced
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, large diced
Olive oil for sautéing
½ cup Vidalia onion, chopped
½ cup celery, chopped
¼ cup green bell pepper, chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
White Sauce (recipe follows)
10 to 12 uncooked lasagna noodles
1½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose fl our Salt and pepper, to taste
2 cups milk
1½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
Pinch of cayenne
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, combine sausage, chicken and Cajun seasoning. Cook chicken through, about 8 minutes. Remove meat from skillet with a slotted spoon; set aside. Sauté in olive oil: onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic until tender. Remove from heat; stir in cooked meat and white sauce. In a greased 9×13-inch hotel pan, cover bottom with four lasagna noodles. Spread with ½ of the meat mixture. Repeat layers; cover with a layer of noodles. Spread remaining White Sauce over top. Top with mozzarella cheese and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Bake in 325 F oven for 1 hour. Let stand 15 minutes before serving or chilling.
Cook’s Note: Can prebake lasagna, cool, then slice. Reheat slices per order.
Katie Ayoub is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.