Before this pandemic came anywhere near our shores we were witnessing the launch of yet another wave of new pizza and pasta joints. Now that we're trapped in our houses, looking into the eye of the cold season and trembling at an uncertain future, it comes as zero surprise that all we want to do is pull on our softs and slip between the soothing sheets of bolognese-slathered pasta until it's all over.
When restaurants began their transition to cooking for home delivery, lasagne, luxe or standard, quickly emerged as the star of the show.
And at first that seemed odd. Lasagne, internationally loved, is a dish that many of us have in our home repertoire. Why buy the one thing I suddenly have the time to make for myself? I don't have kids. One week into lockdown, even I wanted a break from the endless bench-wiping cycle. To be feeding bored, fussy children while also attempting to work from home and home school? I'd be ordering a semi-trailer-sized slab and unloading it straight onto the bench.
Like many culturally popular dishes, the origin story is as hotly disputed as that of pavlova. Does it come from ancient Greece? Was that 1390s English document mentioning a lasagne-style dish proof of inception? Or is it from Naples? Or Bologna? I'd argue it doesn't matter. All we tend to rate is the version most familiar to us.
Attica was one of the first to start offering a package dinner for two ($60 with salad and pull-apart garlic bread) and while that is not the three-hatted restaurant's usual MO, owner Ben Shewry didn't hesitate. On an Instagram post he wrote, "Growing up it was the dish that we celebrated every birthday and special occasion with, including Christmas day. It was the first dish on my mind to make for our community."
Certainly part of the pull for this story was owed to the mind-bending prospect of a three-hat lasagne. I was pleasantly surprised that as the first cab off the rank, Attica's has no affectations and tastes so purely of home. The pasta layers have substance, while the bolognese mince is fine with an echo of lemon thyme. It respects an equal ratio of meat-to-cheesy bechamel. Between those layers is the more warming reality that several would-be-destitute staff are still employed making and delivering it.
I lined up six slabs of the good stuff for this story, but this is no compare-and-contrast smackdown. Lasagne is as personal as a Vegemite-on-toast situation and it's about finding the one that fits.
You want to get cheesy between the sheets? How about a vegan bad boy subbing veg for the dough because you have carbed yourself into a plus-size tracksuit? Melbourne has you sorted in every single way.
You like it meaty yet precise? Past Attica, at Brighton's Aromi, their secret weapon is 15 ultra-fine layers of pasta creating tiger stripes against a rich, dark, traditional ragu. Doused in an extra layer of the dark sauce it's a testament to the worth of ugly delicious food.
Those who can still recall the good old days of February will recall that South Melbourne's fine diner Lume had just changed chefs to Elijah Holland, but he's continuing a proud tradition of messing with your head with a whimsical rendition that subs out pasta sheets for finely shaved celeriac. The mince layer, sharp and rubbly, is actually eggplant, blitzed to a mince-like texture. All vegan, it gets final oomph from a sprinkle of their house-made celery salt. It's rich, but with a bright, crunchy edge.
Vegan but longing for the more traditional-tasting laz? From Shannon Martinez' school of vegan witchcraft and wizardry comes Smith and Deli's slab of I can't-believe-this-is-vegan. Every bit of its garlicky "meat" layer and crunchy "cheese" shroud registers a double-take in the mouth.
Di Stasio Citta's good-looking lasagne. Photo: Eddie Jim
If some restaurants are pivoting to pasta, others set the bar by which all restaurant lasagnes are measured. Di Stasio (both Citta and St Kilda) offer the longstanding signature spring lasagne, the recipe of Ronnie Di Stasio's mother. As far as a lasagne can be good-looking, this is, and not just because their delivery service involves their white-coated staff rocking up in a red sports car. Ultrafine layers are brought to life by intense, acid-edged tomato, soothed by the stretch of buffalo mozzarella and kicked into touch by parmesan and basil. Praise be to the gods of straight-edge cooking.
The Grand Hotel (trading through Piccolo Grand) has been nailing lasagne since BC (before corona). True, the restaurant's specialty is vincigrassi, using offal, but their standard pork and fennel rendition is revelatory. Large and flat, the filling of slow-cooked pork is torn into bright juicy striations. Tomato-free, the braise is elegant and light with fennel.
Room for one more? Surprisingly, carbed to the gills, I was. Largely because it's a message of hope: a proud stack (pictured below) of pine mushrooms, edged with fennel seed and a ballsy amount of cheesy bechamel, it came from a restaurant that has been born in times of crisis and still come out swinging.
Rocco's Bologna Discoteca, a newbie on Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, from Marion alum, will be slinging outrageous meatball subs and fried bologna sandwiches when the sun shines again. I can't wait to peel off my tracksuit to meet it in person. Until then, I'll be here in my lasagne. And I know I'll be all right.
Attica, $60 (dinner for two), attica.com.au/delivery
Aromi, $24, aromirestaurant.com.au
Lume, $26, restaurantlume.com.au
Smith and Deli, $16, smithanddaughters.com
Di Stasio Citta, $28, distasiodelivery.com
Piccolo Grand, $26, grandrichmond.com.au
Rocco's Bologna Discoteca, $24, roccosbolognadiscoteca.com
Also try: Estelle, Fair Feed, Mister Bianco, Meatsmith, Leonardo's.
Pro-tip: Don't miss Lume's wild plum trifle or Piccolo's torta caprese for dessert.