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The History Spiral Lasagna

By on Thursday, December 14th, 2023 at 10:07 pm | 1,356 views

spiral or pinwheel lasagna has become a viral sensation in part due to Chefs Angie Rito and Scott Tascinelli who started selling the dish at their restaurant, Don Angie. Here a baking dish of a copycat recipe

Don Angie’s pinwheel lasagna has been a viral sensation since the restaurant opened in 2017. Their beautiful and delicious dish has deservedly attracted buzz, but spiral baked lasagna actually has a long history before their restaurant opened.

Chefs Angie Rito and Scott Tascinelli opened the modern red sauce restaurant after working separately and together at various places around New York City. Rito grew up in Cleveland, Ohio where she worked in her family’s Italian bakery, and both chefs wanted to draw on their Italian American heritage when opening the restaurant. They have successfully merged traditional Italian American cuisine with modern culinary trends, and their pinwheel lasagna has become iconic, even become the cover of their 2021 cookbook, Italian American

It’s a bit ironic that the spiral-shaped lasagna has become a sensation on social media since Instagram was the inspiration for the dish. Rito told Food And Wine that she was looking on social media when she saw a photo of cinnamon buns and decided to apply a similar technique to lasagna. The resulting dish is a crispy, photo-ready lasagna where the baked pasta layers are visible, showing off the filling.

Although the lasagna created by Rito and Tascinelli is an all new take, spiral lasagna isn’t new at all. Pinwheel shaped lasagna actually has a rich history both in Italy and in the United States.

Lasagna noodles are one of the oldest pasta shapes, and even predates dried macaroni. They are, after all, simple, broad, flat noodles. The lasagna noodle serves as the basic building block for other pastas including fettuccine and tagliatelle, as well as stuffed pastas like ravioli or manicotti.

What Americans commonly call lasagna is more properly known as a lasagna al forno, an oven baked lasagna. There are other variations of lasagna en brodo – in soup broth – or with sauce. The plural word lasagne more accurately describes a collection of many lasagna noodles, but this usage is uncommon in Italian American communities, and not universal in Italy.

Lasagna in America is most often made of several layers of pasta with cheese and tomato sauce, baked in the oven. American lasagna recipes do include some variations on these fillings, like white lasagna that eliminates tomato sauce in favor of extra cheese, or adds spinach and artichoke hearts. Lasagna has also had a long history of culinary fusion like “Mexican” lasagna, a nearly century old recipe filled with ground meat and flavors of the southwest.

This modern way of cooking lasagna evolved in the late middle ages. The 14th Century Neapolitan cookbook Liber de Coquina included recipes for lasagna noodles stacked with cheese and baked, although the use of mozzarella only happens in middle of the 17th century. Tomato sauce is first documented with lasagna in the 19th century in Il Principe dei cuochi from 1881, but is absent from the renowned Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well from Pellegrino Artusi.
Throughout Italy, there are numerous variations on baked lasagna based on local preferences. In Piedmont, the tomato sauce is replaced with blood from pigs, and in Venice, red radicchio.

What Americans think of as “traditional” lasagna has a lot more similarities to variations from the south of Italy, largely because this is where immigrants in the 19th and early 20th century departed from. In Campania, the region around Naples, mozzarella, ricotta, and meatballs are common ingredients – and this influence is reflected heavily in the United States.

One example comes from Colucci’s in New York City. Their baked lasagna recipe featured ricotta and a meaty tomato sauce in the 1930s, documented in Diane Ashley’s book, Where to Dine in Thirty-nine: A Guide to New York Restaurants. Mama Leone’s in Times Square was also famous for layered lasagna. The fillings Leone’s used included ricotta, tomato sauce, and meatballs – similar to the Neapolitan style lasagna di Carnevale.

While lasagna often frequented the menu of Italian American restaurants, it was Stouffer’s who helped make lasagna a widely consumed American food when it launched a line of frozen meals in the 1950s. The Cleveland-based restaurant added its name to a line of frozen meals introduced to grocery stores in the post-war period. The prepared food segment was just beginning to take hold as consumers looked for “convenience” foods. Many households didn’t even have home freezers. But that was about to change.

The Stouffer’s line of casseroles were initially met with skepticism. The flavor and quality was largely panned, except for the lasagna. It quickly became a leading product in the line, and the introduction of the meals during a time when home freezers and the desire for convenience foods was growing helped turn lasagna into a widely consumed dish.

These lasagna examples all largely follow a similar format of layering flat noodles with cheese, sauce, and occasionally meat–and that became the standard in America by the middle of the 20th century. However, that wouldn’t always be the case.

Italian cuisine includes a number of spiral-shaped foods known as rotolo. Variations include rolling pieces of meat or fish, and of course in rotolo di pasta (pasta rolls), also known as Rotolo di pasta fresca ripieno (fresh stuffed pasta) made from lasagna noodles.

These dishes are formed by taking lasagna noodles and stuffing them with ricotta and spinach. Sheets of lasagna have cheese and spinach spread across them and then are rolled up and sliced before each individual wheel is baked. The pinwheels are then baked spiral up. Tony May’s Italian Cuisine: The New Essential Reference to the Riches of the Italian Table, describes another variation stuffed with chicken livers, veal, and sausage. This recipe also requires steaming the stuffed pasta before slicing into pinwheels.

While rotolo di pasta probably arrived with homecooks and was probably even available at a few restaurants, the recipes are far from universal, and certainly nowhere near as well known as baked lasagna. However, in the mid-1970s, that began to change.

A recipe for pesto-filled spiral lasagna began circulating in newspapers in the United States in 1976. The recipe includes a frozen pesto, in what one article describes as a sauce made from herbs and butter, and usually available in the freezer section (Pesto, too, was just being introduced to Americans). The article, “Cheese Creates Smiles,” was syndicated in many newspapers across the country in 1976. Presented as news, the write-up has the vibes of a promotional puff piece for “Italian-style cheese” made in the United States, and includes several other cheese-filed recipes. While there is no direct attribution, it seems likely this is the result of marketing by American cheese producers or similar entity.

Yet, the included recipe does explain how to make the special spiral lasagna. The lasagna noodles are laid flat and filled with mozzarella and pesto before rolled and turned on their side. They are then stacked in a baking dish before topped with tomato sauce and cooked. The whole thing sounds very much like something out of the 1970s.

Another variation from 1988 calls spiral lasagna a “show-off supper.” The recipe is more typical of American lasagna, combining cheese, meat, and tomato sauce. Similarly, lasagna noodles are laid flat, filled, and rolled.

These recipes though are using standard Americanized lasagna noodles, a dried macaroni product. Cooking the noodles softens them so they can be rolled. Neither recipe calls for cutting the rolled pasta in thinner spirals, so they were taller too than the pinwheels developed by Don Angie.

The shape isn’t the only difference Don Angie’s lasagna recipe has over other American lasagnas. The restaurant’s recipe draws inspiration from the flavors of bolognese lasagna, a signature dish from Bologna, Italy.

The creamy filling isn’t cheese, but instead relies on béchamel sauce. The butter-and flour based sauce helps old the spirals together. Italian Besciamella sauce is the hallmark ingredient in lasagna bolognese, along with a hearty, meat ragù. While Americans commonly eat “spaghetti bolognese” – a dish that doesn’t actually exist in Italy – lasagna bolognese was a relatively recent arrival. Before the 1980s, most American lasagnas were modeled on southern Italian cooking with tomato sauce and ricotta cheese. References to lasagna bolognese only became widespread in the United States in the 1990s. Today in Italy and Europe more broadly, lasagna bolognese has become the more popular style of baked lasagna, even outside of bologna.

What Angie Rito and Scott Tascinelli have done with their spiral lasagna is take a classic Italian American dish and update the flavors to better reflect the current consumer taste in a beautiful, photo-ready presentation. The pinwheel lasagna was a dish designed to be a viral success. It’s also a challenging dish to make at home, which might explain why it’s so hard to book a reservation.

Meanwhile, Rito and Tascinelli are set to open a new restaurant a few doors down from Don Anngie. The new spot, San Sabino, will open at 113 Greenwich Avenue with a focus on handmade pasta and seafood.

For a recipe and instructions on cooking the Don Angie Pinwheel Pasta, check out All The Things I Eat. Below are two spiral lasagna recipes from the last century.




Historic Recipes

1976 Cheese And Pesto Lasagna

Adapted from a 1976 recipe
The Daily Courier, August 10, 1976

Ingredients

8 lasagna noodles
Pesto sauce
1 ½ cup Romano Cheese
1 ½ cup ricotta
1 cup finely chopped mushrooms
Parsley
Basil
Nutmeg
Garlic
Tomato sauce

Instructions

Cook pasta al dente
Bath in salty ice water
Combine cheese, pesto, mushrooms, herbs, spices
Spread mixture across lasagna noodle
Roll noodle
Repeat with each lasagna noodle
Spoon some tomato sauce into a baking dish
Stand the rolled noodles spiral-side down
Top with remaining sauce
Sprinkle with cheese
Bake uncovered 400F until done, about 20 to 25 minutes



1988 Pinwheel Lasagna

Adapted from Linda Franklin
Galveston Daily News, June 22, 1988

Ingredients

Tomato Sauce with ground beef *
Garlic powder
Lasagna noodles
2 cups ricotta cheese**
Parsley
Mozzarella cheese

Instructions

Cook pasta al dente
Bath in salty ice water
Grate mozzarella cheese
Comhine cheeses
Spread mixture across lasagna noodle
Roll noodle
Repeat with each lasagna noodle
Spoon some tomato sauce into a baking dish
Stand the rolled noodles spiral-side down
Top with remaining sauce
Bake uncovered 375F until done, about 30 minutes

* The recipe calls for 1 pound ground beef, canned tomato sauce, and canned whole tomatoes cooked together. You are better than this.

** The recipe calls for 1 cup ricotta cheese to combine with cottage cheese, but this is a step too far.