Layers of Love: Classic lasagna

Lasagna is layers and layers of cheesy, saucy, meaty, gooey deliciousness: a decadent meal that will leave you satisfied. It takes a bit of time to pull together, but it’s a worthwhile labor of love. Because it’s a one-pan dish, it’s easy to make ahead and freeze, easy to transport and easy to love as a leftover.

Lasagna is named for the style of noodle that’s used — possibly the oldest variety on record and made from a flat sheet of pasta dough that’s rolled out and sliced into strips that are two to three inches wide. 

The filling can be a combination of many things, including sausage, beef, veal, pork or chicken. Vegetables such as mushrooms, onions, spinach, kale, peppers and lots of garlic are commonly added. 

Cheese — or lots and lots of cheeses — are incorporated in the layers: ricotta, Parmesan and mozzarella. Sometimes a béchamel sauce is used to add richness and creaminess. Different regional styles of lasagna have evolved in Italy.

When I buckle down to make lasagna, I typically plan to make two or three pans of it at the same time. It tastes better when it has time to sit, so make it ahead to give the flavors time to meld. 

Photo by Len Villano.

Freeze the extra pans you make, and pull them out for a midwinter dinner party. Your friends will thank you! Add a simple salad and some cheesy garlic bread (there’s a recipe at the end), and violà! You’ve created a luxurious, home-cooked meal to share with the folks you love. 

Lasagna is also my go-to gift for new parents. When my son entered this world 10 years ago, friends and family showered us with precooked meals, and they were the best gifts a new mama could ask for. My belly was full of healthful goodness, and those meals gave me more time to focus on my brand-new peanut. I am so grateful to this day for all the food love that showered down upon me at that time, and lasagna remains my way to pass that love forward. 

If you have time, make the marinara and Bolognese sauces from scratch a day before the assembly. If you don’t have time, try one of the great jarred marinara varieties that are available at the market — there really is no wrong way to pull this dish together. 

Lasagna is the perfect cool-weather comfort food. I recommend grabbing your favorite bottle of red wine and settling in to a plate of Italian deliciousness as the snow gently falls on the world outside your door.


A lot goes into making this delicious meal. To help with planning, here’s a list of all the ingredients you’ll need for the lasagna. (Add the ingredients for the cheesy garlic bread if you’ll also be making the bread.) The specific amounts needed at each step and the preparation directions are listed in the recipe.

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil 
  • 2.5 yellow onions 
  • 5 garlic cloves + ½ tsp garlic
  • 2 (two) 28-oz cans whole peeled tomatoes
  • 2½ tsp dried oregano 
  • Salt to taste + ½ tsp 
  • Pepper to taste
  • ½ cup + splash red wine 
  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 1 tsp whole fennel seed
  • ½ tsp sweet paprika
  • 2 lbs ground beef
  • 2 (two) 25.5-oz jars store-bought marinara sauce (if not doubling the marinara recipe to create enough to mix with the Bolognese; you will double the marinara recipe if you’re using half of it to mix with the Bolognese)
  • 32-oz container whole-milk ricotta cheese
  • 1 Tbsp dried garlic powder
  • 2 cups shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup fresh Italian parsley
  • 8 oz mushrooms
  • 1 zucchini
  • ¼ cup fresh basil
  • 1 box lasagna noodles
  • Bag of fresh spinach
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

The ingredients listed here are for one pan of lasagna. Double or triple the amounts if you plan to assemble multiple pans at the same time. If you end up with extra sauce, freeze it to use in a future dish.

Preparing the Layers

Photo by Len Villano.

I use two different sauces when making lasagna. The first, a classic marinara, keeps the dish saucy and juicy. The second, a Bolognese (meat sauce), adds a layer of hearty meatiness.

Layer one
Marinara Sauce
Yields approximately 2 quarts of sauce.

Make a day in advance if possible so the flavors can meld. Double this marinara sauce recipe if you plan to use it — versus store-bought marinara — to mix with the Bolognese meat sauce later. (See the Bolognese sauce recipe below.)

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, diced
  • 2 (two) 28-oz cans whole peeled tomatoes (I use San Marzano), with juice drained and set aside to use later
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ cup red wine
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Over medium-high heat, sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil for 5–7 minutes, until translucent. Add the tomatoes, oregano and pinch of salt. Simmer on medium-low heat for 10–15 minutes. Add the wine, the drained juice from the canned tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for another 10 minutes. Set aside to cool, then puree in a food processor or blender. Set aside.

Layer two
Bolognese Sauce 
Season the sausage a day in advance, allowing the flavors to meld.

Italian Sausage 

  • 1 lb ground pork
  • ½ tsp fresh garlic, diced
  • 1 tsp whole fennel seed
  • ½ tsp dried oregano
  • ½ tsp sweet paprika
  • ½ tsp salt

Mix the pork and spices together thoroughly. Refrigerate overnight.

  • 2 lbs ground beef 
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 1 tsp dried oregano  
  • 2 cloves garlic, diced
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Brown the Italian sausage, ground beef, onion, oregano and garlic over medium-high heat. Drain the fat. Salt and pepper to taste.

Mix in:
2 (two) 25.5-oz jars store-bought marinara sauce, or use the marinara sauce you prepared. (If you choose to use the marinara you’ve made according to the recipe above, double that marinara recipe and mix half of it with the browned meat.) Set aside.

Layer three
Filling Cheese

  • 32-oz container whole-milk ricotta cheese (Don’t skimp on the fat.)
  • 1 Tbsp dried garlic powder
  • 2 cups shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup fresh Italian parsley, diced

Mix all ingredients together and set aside.

Layer four
Vegetable Sauté

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • ½ yellow onion, diced
  • 1 garlic clove, diced
  • 8 oz mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 zucchini, sliced
  • Splash of red wine
  • ¼ cup fresh basil, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Over medium-high heat, sauté the onion and garlic until soft. Add the mushrooms and zucchini. Add a splash of red wine, and sauté until the vegetables are al dente. Remove from the heat and add in the fresh basil. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Assembling the Layers

Preheat oven to 375° F.

Use your favorite baking dish. (I typically use a 9×11 Pyrex dish.) Do not grease the dish: Adding a layer of marinara to the bottom of the baking dish creates a nonstick foundation. Surround yourself with all the layer ingredients, plus:

  • Box of lasagna noodles (I do not parboil my noodles prior to assembly because the juiciness of the sauce and the time in the oven will cook the noodles all the way through.)
  • Bag of fresh spinach
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

Don’t skimp when layering the ingredients.

  1. Cover the bottom of the baking dish with about ¼ inch of the marinara sauce. 
  2. Add a layer of dry lasagna noodles. Try not to overlap them.
  3. Add a layer of the Bolognese sauce.
  4. Add dollops of the filling cheese. (I use a big spoon and leave about ½ inch of space between each of the cheese dollops.)
  5. Add a sprinkling of the vegetable sauté.
  6. Add a handful of fresh spinach.
  7. Add a layer of marinara sauce.

Repeat steps 2–7. (I can usually get three layers in a baking dish.) Cap with a final layer of noodles. Cover in marinara sauce or Bolognese sauce — your choice or whatever you have left. Crown the lasagna with the shredded mozzarella cheese. 

Cover with aluminum foil, and bake for 45 minutes to one hour. (I place the baking dish on a sheet pan to catch drips.) Uncover for the last 15 minutes of bake time to brown the cheese. The lasagna is finished when it bubbles around the edges. Let it sit for 10 minutes to cool and set up prior to serving. Enjoy!

Cheesy Garlic Bread

Photo by Len Villano.

Make just prior to serving dinner so the bread is fresh and piping hot. It’s perfect for capturing the last bit of lasagna sauce from your plate.

Bake at 375° F.

  • ½ stick (4 Tbsp) soft butter
  • 2–3 garlic cloves, finely diced
  • 2 Tbsp fresh Italian parsley, diced
  • 1 baguette, sliced in half the long way
  • ½ cup shredded blend of Parmesan and mozzarella cheese

Mix the butter, garlic and parsley together. Spread the butter mixture on the bread, covering thoroughly. Place the bread on a sheet pan. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle on the cheese blend and return the bread to the oven to bake until the cheese is melted. Serve while it’s piping hot!