When I was a little girl, about once a year mom reached into the back of the linen closet and pull out the red-checkered table cloths. Card tables were set up and bulbous wicker-covered wine bottles with years of candle drips decorated them. My sister and I rolled the flatware into the fancy paper napkins and soon the wafting scent of lasagna filled the house. Therese Petrillo was having her signature Italian party. Neighbors and old friends arrived and the Chianti flowed. The hi-fi had a stack of albums alternating between Caruso, Tony Bennett, and obscure Italian singers. One year my mother’s cousin dropped in with his accordion.
Late at night after every dish was washed and linens were piled high in the laundry room, my sister and I perched in the stairwell and overheard my parents recalling the highlights of the night.
“Don Hunt went back for thirds!”
“Ron Cummings was so tipsy I found him trying to pee in the laundry room sink!”
The next morning as my mom put away the last of the good china and climbed the kitchen ladder to put away her serving trays, she would inevitably sigh, “Well, that’s just too much work. I’m never going to do that again.” The guest list changed and we moved to different towns, but the lasagna party was, nonetheless, resuscitated annually.
I looked forward to my parents’ parties even when it meant I was on dish duty. My mom was a great entertainer. She employed all the elements of a successful party: She chose a theme that had meaning to her, she created a festive ambiance, her food was always delish, and she was a gracious hostess. She prepared days in advance and made sure she served food that enabled her to be a guest and not just a worker bee stuck in the kitchen. And, she had her little servants — my sis and me — to do the grunt work.
Yes, Therese was the ultimate party planner. She melded her creativity with preparedness and crafted lively events.
My mom never actually shared her recipes with me. They were never written down and we never had that mother-daughter bonding time when she actually explained what she was doing in the kitchen. I watched her make her tomato sauce hundreds of times in my life and it seems like she never made it the same way twice. Sometimes she would put pork ribs in the simmering sauce. Often she put her delicious meatballs in it and, occasionally, some Italian sausage.
When it came to lasagna, a meat sauce or, God forbid, béchamel, was a bastardization according to Mom. For her, lasagna required classic marinara all the way. I’m certain my mom wouldn’t like my veggie version either — full of spinach and mushrooms and sometimes goat cheese added to the ricotta.
Here’s the lasagna recipe I make for my family. The marinara sauce is also great with any pasta, for pizza, and as a base for other dishes.
1 carrot, finely shredded
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Two 28-ounce cans of whole San Marzano tomatoes
4-6 leaves fresh basil, chiffonade
Freshly grated white pepper
12 lasagna noodles
Ricotta cheese (fresh is the best)
½ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
Pecorino Romano cheese
Sauté the onion and carrot in EVOO until translucent.
Add the garlic and saute for another 1-2 minutes. Add the San Marzano tomatoes and their juice, basil, good pinch of sea salt, and white pepper.
When I have it, I like to add a small chunk of the Pecorino Romano cheese rind to the sauce. It’s not necessary but it adds richness. Be sure to remove before pureeing.
Simmer for 1 hour.
Puree with immersion blender until smooth.
The sauce can be made one day ahead. Cool and then cover and refrigerate. Rewarm over medium heat before using.
Preheat oven to 375℉.
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook lasagna noodles in boiling water for 8 to 10 minutes. Drain noodles, and rinse with cold water.
In a mixing bowl, combine ricotta cheese with egg, parsley, and a couple good pinches of sea salt.
To assemble, spread 1 1/2 cups of sauce in the bottom of a 9×13” baking dish. Arrange 6 noodles lengthwise over sauce. Spread with one half of the ricotta cheese mixture. Top with a third of the mozzarella cheese slices. Spoon sauce over mozzarella, and sprinkle with Pecorino cheese. Repeat layers and top with remaining mozzarella. Cover with foil. (To prevent foil from sticking to lasagna spray with cooking spray.)
Bake in oven for 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 20 minutes or until cheese is golden and sauce is bubbling. Let lasagna stand for 15 minutes before serving.