The Food Lab: Introducing Lasagna Napoletana, the Meatball and Cheese-Packed Lasagna of Your Dreams

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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Crisp meatballs, sausage, and smoked cheese in a hearty Neapolitan-style red sauce are layered into this lasagna. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Despite the number of lasagna recipes I've published on Serious Eats in the past, for me there was really always One True Lasagna. One lasagna to rule them all, and with its meaty, cheesy layers, bind them.

I'm talking, of course, about lasagna Bolognese, the Northern Italian casserole made with fresh pasta layered with cheese sauce and a slow-cooked meat sauce enriched with cream.

But what if I told you that there was another lasagna out there that's every bit as decadent, involved, rib-sticking, and delicious? I introduce to you Lasagna Napoletana, a lasagna that comes stuffed with an insanely meaty and savory red sauce, small and tender meatballs with crisp edges, slices of sausage, and not one, not two, not even three, but four types of cheese. Are you ready to have your gut busted and your mind blown? Let's go.

A Ragù for the Rest of Us

As a kid, I knew ragù as the oregano-spiked, sweet tomato sauce that came out of a jar. My mom would sometimes add ground beef or perhaps some pale, slimy mushrooms to it and call it supper. But ragù actually covers a very broad range of slow-cooked meat sauces. The undisputed king of ragùs is ragù Bolognese, and we've got a killer slow-cooked recipe for you.

But if you were to pick a president and el tigre numero uno of the ragù world, it'd be ragù Napoletana, a meaty stew with big chunks of meat and sausages simmered until fall-apart tender in a rich tomato sauce flavored with wine, onions, garlic, basil, and plenty of good Southern Italian olive oil. It's the precursor to Italian-American Sunday gravy: just add some meatballs, serve it with spaghetti, and you're there.

Lasagna Napoletana is traditionally served during carnivale, the Italian Lenten festival that runs from Christmas to Mardi Gras, and though it can be made with a ragù containing beef and pork, around the holidays, it's more typical to see it with pork alone. I started by looking at the larger cuts of meat—the ones that we'll end up shredding and transforming into meatballs.

For a slow cooked sauce like this, I quickly narrowed my options down to cuts of pork that are particularly high in connective tissue, a quality that will keep the pork moist and tender (lean cuts like pork loin end up simply drying out). At the supermarket, this mostly comes down to four major cuts:

  • Pork shoulder (A.K.A. pork butt) is a great choice—inexpensive and flavorful, though it can be extremely high in fat, requiring lots of skimming.
  • Fresh ham comes from the back leg of the pig and is very similar to pork butt for a stew like this.
  • Country-style Spare Ribs are cut from the meat around the loin, and often contain a bit of loin muscle in them as well. They can be hit or miss—too much loin meat and they'll cook up dry instead of tender.
  • Ribs come as a single slab and generally contain both rib meat and some belly meat as well.
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After testing my options, I settled on pork ribs. Not only is their meat packed with flavor, but the bones and accompanying connective tissue add plenty of body to the finished sauce as well, and for a ragú Napoletana, it's just as important for the sauce to be flavored by the meat as it is for the meat to be flavored by the sauce.

I start by browning big chunks of the ribs in a Dutch oven in a thin layer of olive oil, cooking them without moving until a thick brown crust is formed.

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This crust not only flavors the meat, but also adds a nice layer of browned bits to the bottom of the pan to kickstart the flavor of my sauce.

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Next, I add onions and minced garlic to the pot (garlic I minced by hand, of course!), stirring them around until their liquid helped loosen up those browned bits.*

*Incidentally, I've really been enjoying the way my new wooden spoon has been weathering. There's no better way to break in a wooden spoon than to have a few marathon ragù-making sessions.

While a Bolognese ragù is made with a full-on soffritto of carrots, celery, and onions, Neapolitan ragù is much heavier on the onion. In fact, I decided to omit the other vegetables entirely—the onion and garlic alone worked, giving the sauce plenty of sweetness as they gently browned. A pinch of red pepper flakes and dried oregano rounded out the base flavors.

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Though this ragù is typically made with a dry red wine (a Nero d'Avola from nearby Sicily would work well), I actually prefer the slightly brighter flavor that white wine brings to the pot. It really helps with all the rich meat.

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Finally we get to the real difference between Bolognese and Neapolitan ragù: the tomatoes. While in a Bolognese ragù tomatoes are a very minor factor (if they're even used at all), Naples is brimming with amazing tomatoes grown in the local volcanic soil, so you can bet your culo that they're gonna use them. I prefer to use canned D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes for their unique sweet/bitter balance. As with my Slow-Cooked Tomato Sauce, I found I got the best texture by using whole tomatoes and crushing them in a bowl with my bare hands.**

**It also makes me feel like a lesser demi-god, like Hercules' cousin Jeff.

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Once the tomatoes are added, the meat goes back in along with a piece of Parmesan rind (flavor!), a few big stems of basil (herbs are another key differentiator in Neapolitan ragù), and some sausages. Italian-American-style sausages flavored heavily with fennel and red pepper will work, but I prefer to use slimmer, milder sausages that are more similar to the cevellatine used in Napoli. My local Whole Foods carries a slim sausage flavored with just black pepper and garlic with lots of fat chunks of pork and fat. Perfect for the job. The whole thing gets simmered until the meat is fall-apart tender.

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While traditional recipes call for stovetop simmering, as I've recently found in both my Slow-Cooked Tomato Sauce and my Slow-Cooked Bolognese Sauce, the oven is a far better place for simmering down a sauce. Not only does it reduce the sauce more evenly with heat all around (which prevents it from spattering), but it also helps brown the top surface, creating a richer, deeper flavor.

3 1/2 hours later, I was greeted with ultra-tender pork ribs (the bones slipped right out of the juicy meat), a sauce that was as rich and meat-packed as one could hope for, and... sausages that were dried out and tough. Turns out that sausages, just like any other meat, can overcook.

To solve this, I tried again, cooking my ragù with the meat and sauce alone and adding in the sausages just for the last 30 minutes of cooking.

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The resulting sauce was just about perfect (and with just a couple tweaks to the process, would make a great dish all on its own: stay tuned for a complete set of recipes and instructions on how to do it!).

Meatball Pitfalls

With the sauce set, it was time to move on to the meatballs, and this was truly new territory for me. While some recipes for Lasagna Napoletana call for standard meatballs made with ground meat bound with breadcrumbs and eggs, the most intriguing versions I found used the braised meat from the ragù as the base for the meatballs.

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Now that's interesting, I thought. Braised meat has a few potential problems. Sure, eggs can help bind a meatball, adding a network of proteins that set upon being cooked, but most of the binding in a meatball comes from the meat itself. As raw meat is kneaded, its proteins cross-link into a semi-solid network that solidifies as it cooks, giving the meatball structural support.

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With cooked meat, on the other hand, the proteins are already coagulated and do not form any new bonds. What would this mean for the texture of the final meatballs? Only one way to find out.

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I picked the cooked rib meat from the bones, discarded any bits of hard ligament, then pulsed it in my food processor until it formed a rough paste. I then transferred that mixture to a bowl (after stealing a few exploratory bites of course).

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Then I added the remaining flavorings: parsley, garlic, and plenty of Parmesan cheese, as well as some egg to bind and some bread to keep things moist. I processed the mixture into a rough paste, then folded it into my chopped cooked meat.

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On its own, the mixture was damn tasty. How would it come out when fried? Using wet hands, I formed the mixture into tiny meatballs about a half inch wide. Turns out that cooked meat is actually much easier to form into meatballs—there's much less sticking than with raw meat.

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The moment of truth came when I heated up a cast iron skillet with oil and started adding the meatballs. Would they hold together like a standard meatball, or would they fall apart? Luckily they held together, though just barely. If I tried to stir them or shake the pan too much while they were cooking, they ended up dissolving into a mess of shredded meat and browned bits. But, if I was patient, added the meatballs in gently and didn't move them until they were very well browned on the outside, I was rewarded with flavor-packed meatballs that stayed intact.

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Their texture was really interesting. They're still tender, but rather than cutting cleanly with a bite or with a spoon, they end up shredding apart into fine, creamy strands, very much like a good confit or pork rillettes, or perhaps more like Mexican carnitas, with their crisp exteriors and tender, shreddable interiors.

Point is, they're damn delicious. What's even better about them is that since they're made with already-cooked meat, there is very little moisture expulsion going on as they cook. The moisture level of the pre-fried mix is pretty much what you're going to get once they're cooked. This is especially valuable for a dish like this where the meatballs end up cooking twice. They finish up much moister in the baked lasagna than standard meatballs too (with more flavor to boot).

Cheese Reprise

I already had cheese in two separate parts of this recipe, both in the meatballs and with a Parmesan rind in the sauce. Now it was time to take it over the top.

First up: ricotta. I'd always wondered where Italian-American lasagna got its typical ricotta layer. It's certainly not common in a lasagna Bolognese, which opts for cheese sauce instead. The answer is Neapolitan Lasagna, which is layered with ricotta cheese combined with some of the sauce.

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If you can get really good ricotta from an Italian dairy, do it. If you can't, your next best bet is a high quality brand—like Calabro, which I used here—made with no added gums or stabilizers. Barring that, your final option should be using cottage cheese pulsed in the food processor in place of ricotta; standard supermarket ricotta cheese is truly abysmal stuff and should be avoided at all costs.

Though thus far this recipe may seem a little more complicated than a Lasagna Bolognese, the rest is actually far simpler. There's no need to make a separate besciamella-style cheese sauce here; the cheese goes on directly.

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I tried using slices and grated cheese, but preferred the way chunks layer nicely with the sliced sausage and the meatballs. Traditionally, you'd find chunks of scamorza, a mozzarella-like cheese that is smoked. It's tough to find outside of Italy, so smoked mozzarella does just fine in its place. I used a combination of both fresh and smoked mozzarella to tame a bit of its overwhelming flavor.

To start the layering process, I added some of the sauce to the bottom of a greased lasagna pan, then topped it with fresh lasagna noodles (cooked dried lasagna or even no-cook lasagna noodles that have been soaked in warm water for 30 minutes also work well here). I spooned a layer of the ricotta mixture over the noodles.

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Next I nestled a layer of meatballs, sausage, and cheese cubes into the ricotta mixture...

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...and topped it all off with some more sauce.

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the last step was a generous grating of more Parmesan cheese before adding the next layer of noodles and repeating.

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There's debate as to whether the lasagna should finish with cheese on top or sauce on top. The Silver Spoon says sauce dotted with butter. Mario Batali, on the other hand, says cheese and no butter.

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My solution? Finish it off like a pizza margherita, that other Neapolitan staple, with a layer of sauce, some cubes of cheese, some torn basil leaves, and a generous drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and some Parmesan.

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Baking is simple: half an hour covered tightly in aluminum foil in a 375°F oven to get the cheese melted and for the dish to heat through, followed by about 20 minutes uncovered to get the edges crisp and the top browned.

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You're going to be tempted to dive right into the dish, but hold off! A hot lasagna is a messy, roof-of-the-mouth-burning lasagna. You'll end up with neater, more delicious results if you run off and do something exciting for ten minutes (I'm sure you can think of plenty of great ten-minute activities) before coming back to dig in.

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Oops, looks like I didn't wait quite long enough. Messy lasagna for me, please. Just check out the way that melted cheese mingles with the rich tomato sauce and stretches in long strands as you pull a slice from the casserole.

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I like the way the little fresh basil leaf looks like a bow on a package. A little present stuffed with meatballs, sliced sausage, rich meat sauce, and gooey cheese. Those are the best types of presents.

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Lasagna always feels like a celebratory sort of dish for me, and while it's true that classic Lasagna Napoletana is served as part of a winter celebration, I feel like simply making it through the whole long, delicious, and ultimately rewarding process is cause for celebration in itself. So dig in. You've earned it.