There’s quite the rivalry between Northern and Southern Italian cuisines. Residents of each region proudly claim that their cuisine reigns supreme, and while neither region seems ready to step down from the King of Italian Cuisine throne, one thing is sure: the dishes from Northern and Southern Italy are completely different.
Defining the two fares is actually pretty simple. The south of Italy, in most cases bordering the Mediterranean, has a much warmer climate. Olive oil is king, tomatoes thrive in the sunshine and are perfectly ripe and sweet, cheeses are light (think mozzarella, not aged parmesan) and seafood is a common staple. The cuisine reflects the temperate climate and the light, flavorful foods you crave during warmer weather.
Head north and as the climate changes, so does the food. Northern Italy is known for much heartier dishes: game is common, cheeses are aged and much stronger in flavor (think pecorino romano or parmesan) and lentils, stews, and beef are much more common fare. Cream is also a common ingredient, and butter tends to be used much more than in the south. Overall, the food is heavier, is a bit more meat-based, and foods are the things you’d want during the fall or winter.
It is here, in the north, that you find the “Stomach of Italy”: Bologna. Known as the culinary center to many, Bologna is famous for its cured meats and famous “bolognese” sauce: a mixture of three meats (beef, veal, and pork) with a touch of cream. The leading spice? Nutmeg: a perfect accompaniment to creamy dishes. It is here that we took a cooking class to master pasta, and it is here that I fell in love with Lasagna alla Bolognese.
Of course I’ve had lasagna in the States. I’ve even cooked it a few times. But lasagna has never, ever excited me, save one restaurant in Salinas that it is a family tradition to attend (I don’t know WHAT they do to it… but it’s incredible). But I digress. True Lasagna alla Bolognese is much different than the recipes I am used to, which are tomato sauce based and use ricotta and white pasta. This lasagna is much heartier, more colorful, and MUCH more flavorful, and I guarantee you it will blow your mind.
As I learned from our cooking instructor, true Lasagna alla Bolognese always uses green sheets of pasta (the pasta is colored and flavored by spinach). The filling is comprised of Sugo di Bolognese (a beef-based sauce with red wine and onions), bechamel (cream sauce with nutmeg) and parmesan. YUM.
You can access Mario Batali’s traditional Lasagna alla Bolognese recipe on the New York Metro website: the recipe includes the three-meat Bolognese sauce that is typical of the region. Or, check out the recipe for Lasagna alla Bolognese from La Vecchia Scuola di Bolognese in Bologna, where I took a wonderful class on making hand-rolled pastas. It is here that I learned about true Lasagna alla Bolognese and its components… although admittedly, the first time I tried the delicious dish it was from a tiny unmarked hole-in-the-wall store down the street from our apartment in Bologna. An older woman runs the establishment, which is always packed: in the back, her mother and son run orders of pasta back and forth from the kitchen, and if you don’t get there by one, you will not be eating lasagna: it WILL be sold out. (If you’re ever in Bologna, it is a MUST: it is near the corner of Via Pietralata and Via del Pratello).
Being a foreigner in Italia is great: I have no ties to a region or its cuisine, so I’m allowed to love them all equally! And I certainly do… although I may perhaps be a bit partial to some of the dishes I sampled in Umbria, to anything with burrata cheese, and to Lasagna alla Bolognese. Oh, Italy. I shall miss you and your delicious food!