Dieselboy is a veteran DJ and seasoned world traveler who has a healthy obsession with food, cocktails, and cooking. Track his globe-trotting food adventures here at First We Feast, and follow him on Twitter: @DJDieselboy.
For some reason, when people talk about the most delicious and satisfying Italian dishes, lasagna isn’t always the first thing that comes up. But when you think about how fucking amazing lasagna is, then you realize that maybe it should be.
Lasagna was one of those things that I ate from time to time throughout my life, but it never really blew me away. Garfield the cat loved it. I had almost no opinion. It wasn’t until I moved to NYC eight years ago that my mind really changed.
I had my first run in with true lasagna magic at a charming little wine bar in the East Village called “In Vino.” The version there, containing both pork and lamb and requiring a 20-minute cook time, kind of blew me away. Deeply flavorful and molten hot from the oven, it achieved that extra layer of flavor that only the best comfort food can provide. It was this particular experience that set me on the path to ordering lasagna any time I saw it on a restaurant’s menu. It was also, unbeknownst to me, the beginning of my quest for lasagna perfection.
Lasagna was one of those things that I ate from time to time throughout my life, but it never really blew me away. Garfield the cat loved it. I had almost no opinion.
Over the years since then, I probably tasted at least 50 different versions and variations of lasagna from spots all over the country. Some were made with beef, pork, lamb, veal, chicken, or no meat at all. Some had noodles “verde” (made with spinach) and others didn’t. I had lasagna from no-name cooks and lasagna from celebrated chefs. A few were memorable, but most were mediocre at best (and a few worthy of an apology and a refund).
One of the better versions I had was at the four-star Batali-Bastianich flagship, Del Posto, on Manhattan’s west side. They used to offer their insane hundred-layer lasagna as part of their tasting menu, but they were willing to serve up a piece for $35 as an evening special. This piece, cut into an inch-thick slice and laid on it’s side to reveal all of its layers, was an incredible sight to behold. Most of the pasta sheets were paper-thin and there were A LOT of them, hiding pockets of a fine ragù and dots of béchamel in their nooks and crannies.
The taste, however, left a bit to be desired. I like my lasagna big and bold and deeply satisfying. This was light and mild. Beautiful in appearance, but just not packing that giant savory punch I craved in lasagna. And so the quest continued.
Next: Finding the holy grail at Torrisi Italian Specialities…
A few years back a place opened in Nolita called Torrisi Italian Specialities. They were offering a simple lunch menu during the day with a variety of antipasti, a few sandwiches, and a lasagna that was supposedly the real deal: a 109-year-old recipe from co-owner/chef Mario Carbone’s grandmother.
I stopped in soon after they opened and ordered a piece. It took all of two bites to realize that I had reached the summit of Mt. Lasagna. My mind was blown. I knew right then and there that there was no greater, could be no greater, lasagna out there. Not possible. I brought my friends there to try it, and they all agreed that this truly was a special dish. And the best thing of all, it was in NYC and fairly easy for me to get whenever I wanted it.
Or so I thought.
The next time I stopped into Torrisi for lunch, the lasagna had disappeared, it’s spot on the menu now occupied by eggplant parm. What?! I asked what was going on and was told that eggplant parm was going to be on the menu for the warm months and the lasagna would return in the winter. So I waited patiently. And waited. And waited. As the weather turned colder I began calling Torrisi every week or so to inquire about the lasagna. “Not yet.” “Yeah should be soon.” “Nope, eggplant parm is still on the menu.” On and on this continued through the fall and winter and into spring, and the damn lasagna never returned.
I began to get desperate. I needed my fix.
The first thing I did was contact Bon Appétit magazine’s RSVP column, where they hunt down restaurant recipes for readers who request them. I tried this on four separate occasions to no avail. Not even a “sorry it ain’t happening.” During this time Food & Wine magazine did a piece on the Torrisi chefs, and they printed their recipe for eggplant parm. No lasagna recipe. Ouch…that hurt. I then shifted gears and contacted “The Foodist,” aka Andrew Knowlton from Bon Appétit, via Twitter hoping he could help me. He responded that he was going to see the Torrisi chefs that night and he would get the recipe for me. Surprise…he didn’t.
Next: Frustration sets in, until an angel of lasagna intel emerges…
Around Christmastime a couple years ago, I decided that I would try to crack the code myself and reverse-engineer the recipe. On the “First Look” slideshow that Serious Eats published about Torrisi before it opened, I had seen a somewhat generic “recipe” that listed the main ingredients as semolina and whole egg fresh pasta sheets, ricotta, fresh mozzarella, basil, and a meat sauce made with Esposito’s sweet sausage, ground beef, and veal. This was a good starting point.
I then dug up a recipe for bolognese lasagna from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt (a Serious Eats contributor who always has great recipes and articles). I was starting to feel that I might be able to pull this lasagna off. I trekked to Esposito’s in a snowstorm to pick up the sausage, and then flew it to my sister’s house in Denver where I was staying for the holidays. After spending about four hours in the kitchen on Christmas getting the lasagna together, it was time for the moment of truth. And the truth was that this was not the lasagna I was looking for. Tasty, but not the Holy Grail. Fuuuuuck!
At this point, I was starting to give up hope that I would ever taste that 109-year-old (now 111-year-old) recipe again.
At this point, I was starting to give up hope that I would ever taste that 109-year-old (now 111-year-old) recipe again. I even noticed that the lasagna made a surprise appearance on that year’s Torrisi Christmas tasting menu. Wow…now it was just getting brutal.
It really seemed as though this lasagna quest was coming to an end, until something kind of amazing happened. I had recently made the acquaintance of an awesome girl named Kate Krader from Food & Wine. We had gone out a few times for dinner and during one of these meals, I regaled her with the tale of my failed Torrisi lasagna mission. After explaining that I had pretty much given up on it, she told me that she knew the Torrisi chefs and offered to help me get the recipe. Wait…what? Could it really be that easy?
Next: Meeting the man behind the world’s greatest lasagna…
She suggested we have dinner at Torrisi, where she would introduce me to Mario Carbone and I could ask him for the lasagna recipe in person. And so that is exactly what happened. A few months ago I had dinner with Kate, her friend Grace, and my friend Anthony at Torrisi Italian Specialities. And during the meal, chef Carbone came out to say hello.
Without going into too much detail, I told him that I was obsessed with the lasagna that was on the first menu and was willing to do almost anything to get the recipe. He explained that they took the lasagna off the menu because it was a huge pain in the ass to make. But then he said yes—he would, in fact, give me the recipe.
[Chef Mario Carbone] explained that they took the lasagna off the menu because it was a huge pain in the ass to make. But then he said yes—he would, in fact, give me the recipe.
So, after all of the ups and downs of trying to get this damn recipe, it seems as though all of the diligence and determination (and luck) have paid off. I still don’t have the recipe, but I now know I can get it with a few well-placed emails.
Since that dinner I have actually had a few memorable lasagnas that came close to my memory of the Torrisi version—one at Pizzeria Mozza in L.A., and the other at Cucina Urbana in San Diego. But I know that when I finally pull that tray of Torrisi lasagna out of my oven, there will be no memories of other lasagnas. There will be just that one: The ultimate version.