The Single Most Important Day of the Year – National Lasagna Day!
July 30, 2013

We’re a little confused as to why National Lasagna Day is in the hottest part of the summer, but that’s no reason to ever turn down a big piece of cheesy, meaty, pasta-y goodness!

Mmmmmmm... what were we talking about again...?

Lasagna, the near-euphoria inducing, oven baked casserole made of layers of lasagne pasta, meat and béchamel sauces, cheeses, and even a few vegetables, originated in Northern Italy, but variations on the original recipe are many. Lasagna has become a hallmark of Italian American cuisine – immigrants brought the traditional recipe over with them, but the dish has evolved greatly since the late 19th century

An Italian festa in Little Italy, 1912

When many Italian families immigrated to the US, including 97 Orchard’s own Baldizzi family, they left behind poverty and often, a lack of food; two common hallmarks of pre-WWII Italy. As anyone who has ever made a lasagna by hand (microwaving doesn’t count, so I’m out) knows, the dish requires many ingredients and lots of time to make right, so the immigrants probably did not make it very often. However, in America, food was plenty, even if money was still tight. Beef, for example, was difficult to find, much less afford, in Italy, but was a symbol of prosperity in the new country. As strange as it may sound, canned tomatoes revolutionized the way Italian American mothers cooked for their families – tomatoes no longer needed to be purchased on the day, and stewed for long periods of time, rather they could simply be plucked from cans and dropped right into the pan.

Doing things the old fashioned way; a woman and girl prepare food in Italy, 1978. Photo by Mario Ingrosso.

Lasagna didn’t really take off until the 1950’s, when returning WWII soldiers came back to the US with a craving for the foods that they experienced while fighting in Italy. Some enterprising immigrants opened restaurants specializing in the hearty, not-even-a-little-bit healthy cuisine of their new culture: Italian American. (In fact, there is a long history of Italian immigrants opening restaurants in Manhattan; the first fine dining establishment in NYC, Delmonico’s, was opened by two Italian brothers in 1837… and it’s still open!)

A tenement building and Spaghetti House restaurant on street level, 1936.

Today, lasagna can be found in “Mom & Pop” Italian joints, fine dining restaurants, and even the freezer section of the grocery store. So it may be too hot to make your own lasagna today, but it’s a great excuse to go out for dinner. Plus I know someone who would like your leftovers…

Want to learn more about how immigrants have shaped American food, while sampling some of the Lower East Side’s favorite treats? Check out our Foods of the Lower East Side neighborhood walking tour!

– Posted by Lib Tietjen