I grew up eating lasagna. The no-cook noodles came out of a box, the sauce came out of a jar, and the ricotta came out of a tub. Pre-shredded cheese sprinkled over the top created a blistered layer of grease-coated rubber that had to be jackhammered through to get to the curly-edged pasta underneath, which always seemed to be either undercooked or mushy.
Don’t get me wrong. For a kid, that big pile of red sauce, noodles and cheese was a heavenly treat. But I am (allegedly) a grown-up now, with refined tastes, and lasagna is not the kind of food that excites me anymore.
That’s what I thought, anyway, each time I walked by Marcella’s Lasagneria. I’d never heard of a lasagneria, never seen one here or in Italy, and I was less than intrigued because, you know, Stouffer’s. It’s frozen layers of crap in a pan.
Recently, some unknown force pulled me in. The people sitting in the sun at their sidewalk tables looked buoyantly happy. The scents filling the air as the door opened tugged at my stomach. A jovial man, whom I assumed the chef and proprietor, walked around to each table, chatting about his food and laughing with the diners. The scene was so charming I could no longer deny its power.
The man, I quickly learned, was chef Massimo di Sciullo. He runs the place with his family, is always quick with a joke, and he’s a poet with pasta. The lasagne that he creates are unlike any lasagne I’ve had — layers of pasta, handmade every day, are thin ribbons of silk cradling carefully constructed tiers of flavor, and many of them are sublime.
The Mushroom reminded me of everything I loved about my childhood lasagna, but perfected, lending the square of pasta on my plate a strange magic, as if my memories were being rewritten. The red wine sauce, brightly acidic, vividly herbaceous, and stippled with juicy diced chunks of carrots and celery, shoved that jarred sugary ragu out of my head as if it had never existed. The mushrooms, crimini and portobello, added a deep note of woodsy earth to counterpoint the tomato, and the bechamel and cheese served as creamy links locking the flavors together.
The gorgeously green Verdura lasagna, topped with faceted emeralds of zucchini, exhibited a delicate balance of textures and vibrant springtime flavors so fresh they painted a picture of a garden in my head with each bite. Bright bursts of sun-dried tomato lay hidden like rubies between layers of pasta and pesto, the latter’s intense basil note toned into soft submission by bechamel.
The Abruzzo, a nod to Chef Massimo’s home region, dances with spice and acid — the subtle chili kick in the tomato sauce mingles with fennel-spiked housemade Italian sausage to create a satisfying heat.
Lest you think Marcella’s is a one-trick pony, there are lots of non-lasagna options too, including the sumptuous Ravioli al tartufo: delicate triangles of lightly stuffed pasta immersed in a stunningly silky cream sauce studded with precious flecks of black truffle. This dish manages to be luxurious without being ostentatious, substantial without being heavy.
Finished with a carafe of espresso and a scoop or two of locally made Almare gelato, lunch at Marcella’s is always a charming, soul-satisfying experience. Lasagna has been redefined.
Location: 1099 Tennessee St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 920-2225, www.marcellaslasagneria.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays
Price range: $3 to $14.50
Recommended dishes: Mushroom lasagna ($9.95), Verdura lasagna ($9.95), Abruzzo lasagna ($9.95), Ravioli al tartufo ($14.50), The Massimo panini ($9.75)
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted