..turn left when you come out of our building and continue down via Mastro Giorgio, walk past the market and the flower stall, then turn right into via Allessandro Volta, just before you reach the junction with Via Mamorata you will find a tavola calda called Volpetti Più.
It’s a simple, self-service canteen-like-establishment, spartan and rather functional both inside and out. Misleadingly so, don’t be misled, the food is excellent, as simple and unpretentious as the place itself, but excellent nonetheless. It’s not really surprising, Volpetti Più is the little sister of the sublime temple of gastronomia, the delicatessen Volpetti which is just round the corner.
When you come to Rome we will go for lunch. We could have a bowl of thick minestrone or pasta e ceci topped with freshly grated parmesan and a little raw local olive oil accompanied by a slice of warm unctuous pizza bianca. We could have a spoonful of buttery polenta with some slow cooked ragu. If it’s Thursday we might have a whole artichoke cooked Roman style with wild mint followed by a plate of freshly made gnocchi with tomato sauce and yet more parmesan. You might like piece of chicken, rosemary scented with golden, crisp skin – leg or breast you choose – beside it a few roast potatoes and a side order of slim green beans dressed with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. We could choose a plate of 3 different vegetable dishes, I recommend the green beans cooked – stewed really - very slowly with onion and tomatoes, the roasted pumpkin and finally the creamy, pale-green Roman zucchini which are steamed and then ripassate in olive oil, salt and black olives…..Oh, or you could have the baccalà with tomatoes and olives and I – depending on the day – could have a slice of either classic lasagne alla Bolognese, spinach and ricotta lasagne or roasted vegetable lasagne…..
Now it took me a few months of weekly visits to try any of the lasagne in Volpetti. They all looked good, particularly the vegetable one with its pleasing harlequinesqse dots of colour studding the modest stripe of bechamel between the thin and obviously hand-made pasta, but I was distracted by other things. Also, I was still suffering from a hangover from the predominantly bad lasagne years I endured growing up in England, too much meat, too much badly made bechamel, thick stodgy pasta, a soggy unappealing mess..
Then one day a rather elegant looking signor sliding his tray along the Volpetti counter in front of me did an unlikely little skip of excitement and muttered something very enthusiastic in Italian as a new dish of roasted vegetable lasagne was brought to the counter. He promptly ordered a slice, a portion of green beans to be dressed with the new season olive oil and a glass of Soave.
I did the same and I was very glad I did.
Our (his) timing was perfect, the lasagne was warm but not hot. There were 6 very thin layers of excellent handmade egg pasta and between each a thin layer of bechamel sauce dotted with very finely diced mixed vegetables, a sprinkling of parmesan and tiny soft cubes of melted mozzarella. On top was a golden crust of more good parmesan. It was substantial yet delicate, sturdy, retaining its neat shape yet soft, creamy and just a little luxurious at the same time.
It was a little lasagne epiphany. The following week I had a slice of lasagne alla Bolognese and then the following week a slice of the spinach and ricotta one. Actually it’s unfair to say that my rediscovery of lasagne was entirely due to Volpetti. At about the same time – I must have been in Italy about 2 years – I was eating some superlative lasagne in peoples homes, with friends in Velletri, at my friend Andrea’s family home in Le Marche. Each delicious slice relegating my English lasagne horror further into the past.
Anyway the roasted vegetable lasagne…
I’d had it in mind to make a Volpetti inspired roast vegetable lasagne for rather a long time, I just had one problem, I didn’t really have a recipe. I had plenty of advice, inspiration, other recipes. I even had a kind of recipe, a verbal one from the chef at Volpetti, the charming but not very specific one which involved more gesticulation than words
“it’s easy….. make some pasta…..very thin thin thin….. make a good bechamel, keep stirring all the time, all the time…… roast the vegetables, many types, many, various vegetables, you know, you know……layers so and so and so and so and so…… then you need a oven, nice and hot”
Anyway the lasagne joined the list of things entitled Things I would like to make……Then The Italian dish posted a recipe for a roasted vegetable lasagne, I did a little leap of excitement just like the man in the queue. Finally. I gathered my bits and pieces of advice and inspiration, called my cooking consigliere to check her bechamel sauce recipe, went to the market and then made a lasagne.
It’s become a bit of a favourite.
I should probably mention that I don’t make my own pasta, I can – sort of – but I don’t because we live around the corner from one of the best pasta all’uovo in Rome, an old-fashioned, no-nonsense shop called Gatti that makes very traditional fresh egg pasta for locals and some of Romes best restaurants. If we didn’t live near Gatti I like to imagine I would make my own pasta, but if I didn’t I’d have no problem buying best quality dried durum wheat pasta sheets. I don’t bother with thoses no par boil nessesary dried pasta sheets – they are rubbish, thats not snobby, it’s just true.
Fresh pasta is best though….rolled into nice and thin sheets. The Italian Dish has some lovely advice and lessons on pasta making. I also highly recommend Marcella Hazan’s book The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking if you are serious about making your on pasta.
Now before I launch into the recipe I want to mention that even though this is an essentially simple recipe, it demands a bit of effort, a wedge of time and a little patience – nice food often does ! This is a recipe for a quiet morning, a morning with space, no urgency and room for a few pans and little temporary chaos. But once the cooking is done it is a beautifully uncomplicated supper. While the lasagne is cooking you make a big green salad of sweet and bitter leaves (this lasagna needs such a salad), wash some grapes, unwrap one nice piece of cheese and open a bottle of wine…….. a pretty damn fine, no worry supper indeed.
Ok as always these are guidelines. We all have different dishes, ovens, hands, taste buds and pasta…oh the pasta, now that varies wildly and I suppose it always will. I use a very old rectangular Pyrex dish for lasagne it’s about 11″ by 7″ and about 3″ deep. I like 6 layers of pasta in my lasagne and with this particular Pyrex thats 2 sheets of pasta for each layer……are you still with me……12 sheets of pasta.
Roasted vegetable lasagne
serves 4 – 6
- 2 medium carrots peeled and finely diced
- 2 medium zucchini finely diced
- 1 bulb of fennel, finely diced
- 2 medium sweet red peppers, deseeded and finely diced
- olive oil
- coarse salt
- 500ml whole milk
- 50g plain flour
- 50g butter
- freshly grated nutmeg
- 250g ball of mozzarella, chopped or torn into little pieces
- 85g freshly grated parmesan
- butter for dish and dotting on top
- Roughly 12 7″x 5″ sheets of fresh or dried lasagne
So as you may have gathered from all the photos dotted rather chaotically around the post you dice the vegetables, 2 carrots, 2 firm zucchini, the red peppers, and bulb of fennel into neat little cubes and put them in a nice wide baking tray. Sprinkle them with coarse salt and douse with oil (mix everything well with your hands) and roast the vegetables for about 10 minutes in a hot pre heated oven until they are soft, tender and just starting to turn golden.
You make your bechamel. Warm the milk in a small pan but don’t let it boil. in another pan melt the butter over a low flame and add the flour, cook, stirring with a wooden spoon for a couple of minutes. Remove both pans from the heat and slowly pour the milk into the butter and flour pan a little at a time, mixing well between each addition. Place the sauce back on the heat, add salt and a grating of nutmeg and keep stirring without interruption until the sauce is dense like thick cream.
Grate your parmesan into little mountain.
Chop and tear the mozzarella into little pieces
Parboil your pasta……….bring a shallow pan of water to a fast boil and put 3 sheets of pasta in at a time. Fast boil for a minute with fresh pasta or as instructed by your packet for dried. Quickly lift the pasta onto a clean tea towels to dry….yes you need some space for this, have 2 or three towels laid out ready.
Now let the constructing commence.
Butter your dish tuck in a layer of pasta, spread a thin coating of bechamel on the pasta, sprinkle with 1/5 of the roasted vegetables, 1/5 of the grated parmesan, 1/5 of the mozzarella and a grind of black pepper.
Repeat this process 4 more times leaving yourself with just enough bechamel and parmesan for the final layer.
For the final layer spread the bechamel over the 6th layer of pasta and sprinkle with parmesan and dot with butter.
Allow the lasagne to rest for at least 2 hours and up to 12 (in which case in the fridge and covered with cling film and then brought back to room temperature) before baking.
Preheat the oven to 200°/400f and bake the lasagne for about 20 minutes or until a light golden crust forms on top. If you like a very golden crust you can use a hot grill for about a minute rather than risking the lasagne becoming dy in the oven.
Let the lasagne sit for at least 15 minutes before serving in which time it will firm up nicely and reach the right mellow temperature.
My next post is going to be really short.