Anatomy of a dish: vincisgrassi

Think lasagne is the ultimate comfort food? Then you haven’t met its richer, more savoury cousin, vincisgrassi.
Alicia Taylor

It’s not technically lasagne. That would be the traditional dish of Emilia-Romagna, whereas vincisgrassi comes from Le Marche, the region just east of Umbria along the Adriatic. But just as everyone has their favourite lasagne recipe, there are just as many variations on vincisgrassi, too (although, tomatoes are usually left out).

The typical Marchigiano version is made with wild mushrooms, prosciutto or lardo, and chicken innards: le rigaglie del pollo. The savoury meat filling is assembled with alternating layers of besciamella and sheets of fresh pasta, before it’s covered with parmesan and knobs of butter, then baked.

As to the beginnings of vincisgrassi, the common tale is that it was first created by adding extra ingredients to a Bolognese to impress an Austrian general called Windisch-Graetz. But we’re more behind the links to a recipe published in the 1779 cookbook Il Cuoco Maceratese for béchamel with prosciutto and truffle, called princisgras – “grease of princes”.

1. Pasta

Ideally, this rustic dish would be made with hand-rolled fresh egg pasta sheets, but for vincisgrassi pronto-pronto, use shop-bought fresh lasagne sheets as a substitute.

2. The fillings

Traditionally, the filling includes a combination of giblets, livers, hearts and combs, along with sweetbreads, brains and bone marrow. For those less enthused by the idea of innards, it can be served simply with prosciutto and porcini mushrooms, but it won’t have quite the savoury depth of the original.

3. Besciamella

Otherwise known as béchamel, this classic sauce – made with a roux of flour and butter, plus milk – adds a creamy complement to the rich flavours of the offal and wild mushrooms.

4. Toppings

The best way to garnish a pasta al forno, or baked pasta, is to scatter a good amount of cheese on top – most recipes call for parmesan – and bake until golden and bubbling. Depending on the season, vincisgrassi is traditionally served with shavings of fresh white or black truffles. If you can spare the expense, they’re a must. And since there’s a certain earthiness to the dish, a sharp side salad of bitter leaves is of equal benefit.

Where to find one

Italian restaurateur Valerio Nucci, of The Grand Hotel in Melbourne’s Richmond, has been called Australia’s godfather of vincisgrassi. He makes it with beef, chicken livers and lamb brains, but sadly only rolls it out for special events now. Keep an eye out.

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