Have you ever eaten a dish so delightfully creative and satisfying, only to have your heart broken to find out you can never have it again? You might even dream about it, and sometimes, our food dreams come true. After several years of some of Boston’s best restaurants closing, Chef Mark Ladner at Cambridge’s Bar Enza brings a unique and iconic take on lasagna — 100 layers of it to be exact — to Boston diners ready for a fine dining experience you can only get here.
Ladner, who was executive chef at New York City’s Michelin starred Del Posto (which has since closed) created Yesterday’s 100 Layer Lasagna around 2012 (he doesn’t remember exactly) for a party his bosses Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich were hosting for a pack of celebrities, including members of the bands U2 and REM.
But, he told us the dish was inspired by spending time with his daughter.
“My daughter and I were reading through the works of Hans Christian Andersen, and it started out as an ode to ‘The Princess and the Pea,’ so it started as a 20-layer affair, and then just grew from there,” he explained.
The mighty dish ended up on Del Posto’s restaurant’s menu, where it made quite a splash, with New York Magazine calling it “Classic comfort food, refined and redefined.”
Now Ladner has brought his high-caliber, incredibly comforting dish to Bar Enza, which is inside the Charles Hotel. Ladner, who grew up in Belmont, was ready for a change from Manhattan, saying simply, “I just like being back here, close to my family, and such and such and such. I spent almost 30 years in Manhattan and just was done.”
If you’ve been lucky enough to try the dish before, or maybe spotted it on Bar Enza’s extremely appetizing Instagram account, you know you’re in for a treat. Ladner has made a few changes though, based on a smaller kitchen and the bounty of ingredients he has at his fingertips in New England.
“Even though it’s built the same here as it was at Del Posto, it’s served quite differently. It’s much larger, it’s baked rather than seared,” he explained. “I just wanted to mix it up, but also use working within the limitations of the kitchen I have here. I went from 70 cooks to seven, so it’s a very different operation.”
Ladner told us he’s getting his pasta for the layers of lasagna from a local company that makes incredible fresh pasta.
“We buy it from this company in Lynn called Durum, which is the best fresh pasta I’ve been able to find since I moved here,” Ladner said. “I was here maybe six months before we opened, so I had a lot of time to re-acclimate with the surrounding culinary scene and such. I struck up an agreement with the guy that owns the company, Al, and he basically makes a dough for me that’s to my specifications. He just delivers the dough and then we roll it out.”
The filling for the lasagna isn’t what you’d expect, with the sauce being cooked for a short period of time to maintain a lighter flavor.
“It’s really fruity because the marinara is not cooked very long. I thicken it with tomato paste to get the viscosity of a sauce that’s been cooked for a long time, but it still tastes fresh and fruity because it’s only cooked for about 30 minutes,” the chef explained.
As for the cheese? That’s a process too, because lasagna this good needs lots of love, and a cream sauce to layer in, says Ladner, “Then we make a Besciamella, and I thicken the Besciamella with fresh mozzarella. It becomes this really stringy glue, if you will. We take those three components and just alternate them and build up this lasagna.”
But the thing that makes this dish different from any lasagna you may have tried before? It’s not actually baked as a whole dish, it’s cooked by the portion and that’s how you get the perfect crispy top with the gooey inside.
“We build it to about 4 inches high and then we put another sheet tray on top of it and we weigh it overnight. It becomes a solid block with the cheese acting as the glue,” the chef explained, “Then we cut it while it’s cold into portions. We put it in a casserole with more sauce and cheese and then bake it for between 20 and 25 minutes.”
The dish is vegetarian, but can be served with a side of ragu alla bolognese for a more meaty take, or get the marinara because extra sauce is always a good thing. And if a pound of lasagna (yes, it’s around a full pound) isn’t your thing, Ladner told us Bar Enza has created a giant meatball, called Meatball Chianti, in partnership with Andy Husbands’ Smoke Shop BBQ. Husbands and Ladner went to culinary school together, and the meatball is made with, among other things, “spiced and smoked pork shoulder and beef brisket” from Husbands.
Yesterday’s 100-Layer Lasagna $30 (add ragu alla bolognese for $5 more) at Bar Enza, Cambridge.