Zahra Tangorra, Fine Arts alum,
makes the best lasagna ever

By Vanessa Machir
Photos by Joel Goldberg, Advertising and Marketing Communications

The path to culinary success is often rocky, and no one knows this better than chef, writer, and podcast host Zahra Tangorra, owner of Zaza Lazagna in Brooklyn, N.Y.

In December 2006, she was traveling in California with a musician friend on his tour bus when the driver fell asleep and the bus went over a cliff. She remembers thinking, “I don’t want to feel myself die.” Luckily, everyone survived; Tangorra’s hand was gashed and broken.

“I loved to cook and I was an only child, so I spent a lot of time with the Barefoot Contessa.”
—Zahra Tangorra
To make the lasagna, Tangorra uses fresh ingredients from Caputo’s Fine Foods in Cobble Hill.

She decided not to return to her physically demanding job as a display designer. Instead, with the accident settlement money, she focused on food. It’s in her blood: When she was young, her parents owned specialty takeout and catering businesses (one of which was named after her childhood nickname, Zaza). “I loved to cook and I was an only child, so I spent a lot of time with the Barefoot Contessa,” Tangorra says.

In 2010, she opened Brucie, a restaurant in the Cobble Hill neighborhood. Tangorra combined her Long Island, Italian-American heritage with a welcoming, creative atmosphere. In 2014, a Beyoncé-themed Valentine’s Day dinner (dishes included Jay-Ziti and Breastiny’s Child) got the attention of publications like E! and People. “We had 1,000 people on the waiting list,” she says.

But in 2016, stress prompted Tangorra to close. “I hit all these walls,” she says. “When you own a restaurant, people love you, people hate you … I just didn’t want this thunderstorm in my heart anymore.” She catered and consulted until the pandemic hit. Inspired by pop-ups opening at the time, she and a few former coworkers started making heat-and-eat Italian takeout in winter 2021—and Zaza Lazagna was born.

Margaret McCloskey, Film and Media ’23, created this video about the Hue lasagna shoot.

Tangorra focused on lasagna because it fits easily in a package, freezes well, and reheats nicely. And her lasagna is life-changing. For sauce, “I love to roast whole tomatoes in the oven with thinly sliced onions, garlic, salt, pepper, and chili flakes—then mash it all up,” she says. “That way you’re not by the stove all day, making sure your sauce isn’t burning.” She also uses fresh, uncooked pasta sheets and a mix of ricotta, pecorino Romano, fresh mozzarella, and provolone cheeses.

She also puts her own spin on the traditional dish, offering inventive flavors such as spanakopita and sweet potato. For a chicken bacon ranch lasagna, she evoked the nostalgic taste with “delicious products like organic chickens cooked down with crispy pancetta … and Cabot Clothbound Cheddar béchamel with a ton of chives and black pepper and dill,” she says. 

Tangorra’s team would work until the small hours in the basement of a local deli with little refrigerator space. “We were getting 150 orders a week—I don’t know how we did it,” she says. Customers picked up their dishes on Friday evenings, leading Brooklyn Magazine to declare that night “‘Lasagna Night’ in Cobble Hill.” More important was “the collective loving energy” that Zaza Lazagna generated, Tangorra says. “It was so amazing to have folks wait to pick up our food and hear how much it meant to them.” 

Alum Joel Goldberg shot this stop-motion video of Tangorra assembling a lasagna before he photographed the finished dish.
A sprinkle of Parmesan and fresh basil leaves add a finishing touch to a masterful dish.

In September 2023, Zaza Lazagna switched from pickup service to catering and seated dinners, like a pop-up restaurant with famed pizza joint Lucali. Also in 2023, New York Magazine’s Grub Street featured Tangorra, who wrote, “Give me a ladle full of cold sauce on a paper plate and I might just marry you.” No surprise that her upcoming memoir, to be published in 2025, is called Extra Sauce. Note to admirers, bring her favorite: “Red sauce, baby, all the way!”