pesto lasagna

This recipe took a long time to materialize, the ultimate result of a random meeting of two ladies at the baggage claim of a transatlantic flight to New York from Rome back in 1990, one of whom needed to use the bathroom, requiring the other to watch the already retrieved luggage during the deed. Ani met teresa and then later teresa met bob when she came to philly on another business trip, or did they meet in Rome when ani took the bus in the wrong direction while shopping and ended up outside the city? In any case teresa became one of our regular almost annual summer dates thereafter as we shared our friendship while enjoying Roman cuisine.

Eventually we met teresa's brother's family in New York, gianni and carla and 2 teenage kids, when they did their month long Italian visit America tour with teresa and another family to see not only the northeast US but also some of those terrific national parks out in the southwest that ani and bob had never set foot in. And the subject of carla's famous pesto lasagna came up, intriguing the two American pasta lovers and leading to an offer to send the recipe. Somehow the recipe never managed to find its way to us, but as the next summer drew near, an offer to dine on the anticipated dish did materialize, and indeed, it proved to be worthy of the expectations that had been set the summer before.

The idea is simple: replace the Bolognese sauce with pesto sauce in the traditional béchamel, Bolognese and parmigiano layered recipe, a stronger substitute requiring much less quantity to mix with the white sauce in each layer between the pasta sheets. The question is, how much quantity, for which a recipe from Rome would save the need to experiment to get it right. A recipe which then had to wait till after the August vacation.

Despite pleas sent by email to Rome, no recipe arrives in time for the experiment in September. No problem, we'll just guess on the amount of béchamel sauce and unfreeze plenty of pesto from our recent basil harvest, and grate the cheese as we go. Who needs a recipe anyway. We guessed way wrong on the parmiganoless pesto sauce, unfreezing about 4 cups which fit exactly into our 1 quart (=4 c) pyrex measuring glass, some of which still required pine nuts since we had run out at the crucial moment after the harvest, but only used about a cup and a half roughly. Working as a team with division of labor, this took a few hours of the cooking team's time to produce, plus the baking time later for dinner. Well worth the effort. But serve in small portions. The pesto packs a flavor punch. Don't  be overwhelmed.


1 lb fresh lasagna pasta sheets (we used whole wheat)
1 c (8oz container) pesto sauce minus the parmigiano cheese if homemade
1 qt nonfat milk
1 stick (=4oz) butter
1/2 c sifted flour (sifting helps smooth the white sauce)
1/4 t salt
1/4 t nutmeg
2 to 3 c freshly grated parmigiano (less if using store bought pesto complete with cheese).


  1. Start boiling a covered 12 qt pot of hot water reaching up to a few inches from the rim.
  2. Prepare a standard béchamel sauce by microwaving the milk for 2 minutes on high to warm it up, then melting the butter and whisking in the flour, then whisking in some milk and then the rest of the milk, finally seasoning it with the salt and nutmeg. Set aside.
  3. Grate up a cup or two of parmigiano, the rest you can do as you go.
  4. Cut your pasta sheets. Ours were about 5'' by 10'' folded over. We cut them into 5'' by 2.5'' rectangles and passed them once through the next to last thinnest setting (7 out of 8) on our KitchenAid wide roller attachment, which stretched them to about 3.75''x15'' inches. We used a 13''x9.5''x3'' nonstick baking pan so we cut them once boiled to 13'', using two full widths on the outer edges and half strips or end pieces in the middle to use up all our product.
  5. Set a big pan of cold water next to your boiling water pot with some ice if you want it to stay cooler longer.
  6. Boil 3 noodles at a time for 2 minutes, fishing them out one at a time with a Japanese round wire frame thing on a handle and dropping them into the cold water. Then pick them out and stretch them out on kitchen towels, making many layers of towels and noodles to save kitchen space.
  7. Once they are all done, begin the assembly process.
  8. Spray the nonstick baking pan with cooking spray.
  9. Drop sparingly some béchamel sauce around the bottom, then drop a rounded tablespoon of pesto in small amounts as well and then spread them together in a half-hearted attempt to cover the bottom.
  10. Lay 2 full noodles on the outside, and a lengthwise-cut noodle in the middle strip, if you have noodles that have our dimensions.
  11. Now repeat the béchamel and pesto spreading step and sprinkle with parmigiano sparingly.
  12. Continue adding layers, using up cut ends in the middle strip, covering completely each sauce layer.
  13. Finish with 3 whole noodles for aesthetic reasons and the sauce mixture and the final parmigiano sprinkling.
  14. Bake at 350° oven for 25 minutes and serve. We divided the pan into 4 widthwise rows of 4 portions across.


  1. At serving time we counted 10 layers and measured a depth of roughly 1 1/8''. The layers are much thinner than regular Bolognese sauce lasagna where the meat bits hold the layers farther apart. You can easily adapt this to your choice of lasagna pan and lasagna noodles, and even make your own noodles.
  2. It is important not to use too much pesto. It has a strong taste so only use sparingly.
  3. Illustrations available.


Nearly a year after our roman pesto lasagna dinner, and almost two years after the initial tempting dinner invitation made at the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art, an email finally arrives from andrea, the teenage son:

Dear Bob,

we made it!!

Here’s our famous recipe.

It’s in Italian, but you shouldn’t have problems to understand it.

Otherwise just send an e-mail to me or Teresa and I’ll ask her to help me with the translation.

See you on your next trip to Rome,



Lasagna al pesto:


Prendere due mazzi di basilico, lavare le foglie e tritarle con un pugno di pinoli, 3 cucchiai di parmigiano, una noce, un goccio  d’acqua, sale e olio, fino a che non si ottiene una crema.

Aggiungere alla crema 250ml di besciamelle diluita con mezzo bicchiere di latte.


Bollire le sfoglie di lasagna ed asciugarle con un panno.


Disporre la lasagna a strati con il pesto


Cuocere per circa un’ora in formo a 200 C°




Take two bunches of fresh basil, wash the leaves and chop them together with a handful of pine nuts, 3 tablespoons of parmigiano, one walnut, a touch of water, salt and oil, until they form a smooth cream. Add to this cream 250ml of béchamel diluted with half a cup of milk. [translator note: in Italy béchamel comes in little cartons ready to use.]


Boil the lasagna noodles and dry them with a dish towel.


Lay out the lasagna in layers with the pesto.


Bake about one hour in the oven at 200° C.




I guess we got close enough guessing, but notice there is no indication of the amount of lasagna noodles so this is still pretty ambiguous to actually use in practice. In the end, you have to experiment with these home cook recipes until you find something you like.


pps 2012 update


Thanks to ani's sister nora and her friend Colette (vegetarian), we got the idea for kicking this up a notch by scattering small pieces of artichokes and roasted red peppers (both from jars) over each layer sparingly, holding back a bit on the pesto which can be overpowering. By now we are doing hand made whole wheat noodles, and using Trader Joe's pesto. Check out the new photos. We used about 12 oz marinated artichokes, delicately pulled apart and hearts sliced thinly, and about 2 1/2 8oz pesto containers, and with about 1 1/2 lb pasta noodles, we reached 9 layers before running out of 1 1/2 qt béchamel sauce. We cut up the extra noodles for papardelle at a later date.

pestolasagna.htm: 21-jan-2012 [what, ME cook? © 1984 dr bob enterprises]