It’s the quintessential comfort food: pasta sheets layered with a variety of sauces, cheeses, vegetables, and/or meats, and then baked so that your bite goes from crusty to chewy to gooey. It’s easy enough in preparation for hotdog-boiling high schoolers and flexible enough for the gastronomic experiments of farmers market habitués. Guaranteed to please fastidious toddlers as well as fastidious gourmands, it’s just as perfect when friends are coming over, as when your only company is a sympathetic bottle of wine.
This culinary miracle needs no further introduction: lasagna! And while July 29 may be National Lasagna Day, we think any day is a good day for this perennial favorite. Conveniently, excellent and varied examples can be found in many of our local small businesses. Today, we discuss a few of those establishments, and describe how lasagna got here… from Ancient Greece.
Lasagna’s point of origin is open to debate and hinges on one’s interpretation of when a lasagna becomes a lasagna. Although we advise against imposing one’s views on others when it comes to such delicate matters, we can say that the Greeks used to eat a flat, fermented noodle called laganon, layered with toppings and eaten with a stick. Lasagna-like? Maybe. But there probably began the evolution toward the dish that we recognize by that name today. The Romans, big fans of exploring the culinary specialties of the conquered, vanquished Greece in the 140s BC; and they found the laganon noodle delicious. Their version of the dish, lagane, consisted of strips of square- or rectangular-shaped flatbread dough topped with ingredients such as sow’s belly and fish. Since then, historical evidence provides snapshots of the dish’s subsequent, gradual transformation.
We know that the noodle began to resemble the current one during the middle ages, with the introduction of the practice of boiling basic pasta dough. Lasagna was a popular shape. A 1284 quote by Fra’ Salimbene about a corpulent lasagna-eating colleague documents the addition of cheese. Egg was added to the dough during the Renaissance. The tomato did not make its way to Italy until the mid-1500s and did not become popular until the 1800s. Its first recorded star appearance in lasagna came in a Neapolitan recipe from the 1880s. The multilayered version of the dish, the one that became the standard throughout both Italy and the world, was popularized by Francesco Zambrini, a Bolognese. For this reason, Bologna claims lasagna as its own. The Accademia Italiana della Cucina, whose mission is the preservation of Italy’s culinary heritage, calls the dish a Bologna classic, and identifies its defining ingredients as layered egg noodle, spinach, béchamel, and ragù sauce. Variations, of course, abound. And we found an ideal place to explore them.
La Lanterna di Vittorio
Our first stop of the day, La Lanterna di Vittorio (129 MacDougal Street), has been a popular neighborhood destination since 1977, and for good reason. It offers something for everyone. You could go grab a refreshing granita di limone on a hot summer day; keep ordering espresso doppios and work until the morning hours on the term paper you should have started earlier; make it a wine and cheese table for one (it has been a long week); or have a romantic dinner for two in their garden (with a glowing fireplace in the winter), listen to some jazz in their basement bar (once live music resumes from its COVID hiatus), and then share a homemade chantilly cream with fresh fruit to seal the deal. We, however, were there for a singular purpose: to eat lasagna.
Before we laid into our order, we took a moment to contemplate the history of the venue and its building. This restaurant, you see, is a great place, not just to sample a diversity of lasagnas, but also to consider the diversity of communities that converged in this corner of Greenwich Village and shaped the neighborhood over the years. The restaurant is located in one of the three Federal Style houses built in 1828-29 that were landmarked following a joint campaign by Village Preservation and the NY Landmarks Conservancy. By 1920, it contained the studios of Nickolas Muray, a Hungarian-born portrait photographer of note. During the late 1920s, it housed a club operated by Eva “Adams” Kotchever. Kotchever was convicted of obscenity for her book on lesbian-themed stories, deported, and ultimately killed by the Nazis. In 1943, eminent folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger married Toshi Aline Ohta in what is now the restaurant’s garden area. And some time later, my lasagna arrived.
La Lanterna di Vittorio offers eight different kinds of lasagna. How to pick? Easy. Get them all! The menu features the option of lasagna flights, one vegetarian and one pesce e carne. Because variety is the spice of life, we ordered both. That allowed us to sample, first, bolognese, salsiccia e rapini, pancetta cavolfiore e piselli, and peperone rosso, gambero e carciofo, and then, al pesto, ai quattro formaggi, all’arrabbiata, and, ai funghi. Which did we like best? A final verdict may require a second or third visit. But first, we had to make arrangements for dinner.
Russo’s Mozzarella & Pasta
Our second stop was Russo’s Mozzarella & Pasta (344 E. 11th St.), a classic Italian market that has served the East Village since 1908. The neighborhood at the time was a true checkerboard of ethnic enclaves. In addition to Germans, Eastern European Jews, Hungarians, and Slavs, there was a significant Italian population concentrated along First Avenue and expanding along 14th Street. We can still find numerous vestiges of the connection between the neighborhood and the Italian community during those years. Some consist of businesses still in operation. Russo’s is one of them. Its owner, Jack Cagemi, who grew up just a block away and worked there as a kid, purchased the shop in 1986. The store offers a wide variety of Italian essentials, including fresh pasta, breads, cheeses, sauces, cured meats, vegetables, and, of course, fresh mozzarella, as well as a selection of sandwiches.
It also, however, sells a variety of affordably priced prepared foods, including — you guessed it — lasagna, of three different types: eggplant, meat, and spinach and mushroom. This makes it an ideal destination if you feel like staying in and making it a lasagna night. And did we ever!
We went with the spinach and mushroom lasagna and enjoyed its zingy tomato sauce, the mix of ricotta and vegetables, and the upper layer of toasty fresh mozzarella. The lasagna was a fine enough dinner that we decided to have another for dessert. That one, we picked up earlier in the afternoon at our third destination, the December 2021 Village Preservation Business of the Month.
Raffetto’s (144 West Houston Street) has sold fresh pasta in Greenwich Village since its founder, genovese immigrant Marcello Raffetto, launched the business in 1906. Since then, this family-owned and -operated store has grown into one of the foremost destinations in the city for fresh pasta. It also supplies fresh pasta wholesale to dozens of restaurants and markets all over town. Raffetto’s range of products, however, has also expanded greatly over the years. At first, this just meant different types of pastas.
Gradually, breads, cheeses, and all manner of Italian products got added to the shelves. Since the 1980s, the store has also offered a selection of prepared foods based on recipes used by Romana Raffetto, the mother of Richard and Andrew, the current owners. These recipes reflect her northern Italian roots and include ones for delicious indulgences, like her Zucchini cake, and for less traditional concoctions, like chestnut fettuccine with roasted squash, toasted pine nuts, and sage butter.
As luck would have it, Romana seemed to also have a recipe or two for lasagna. So Raffetto’s fortunate customers have a choice between traditional meat, cheese, and spinach and ricotta lasagna.
We had the spinach and ricotta lasagna, feeling that the homemade béchamel sauce would provide a comforting note on which to end the evening. It was deliciously creamy and vegetal. Having concluded our meal, we retired for the evening, considering whether it might be excessive to have lasagna for breakfast.
Want to explore the history of other gastronomic staples and their many exemplary purveyors in our neighborhoods? Click here for beer, here for croissants, here for bagels, and here for ice cream, and to find out more about how to support local small businesses, see our Businesses of the Month, explore new local small businesses, and learn about how small business and local history intersect, click here.