One of the things that makes melanzane alla parmigiana such a fascinating dish is that it is arguably Italy’s only truly national recipe beyond spaghetti al pomodoro (spaghetti with tomato sauce).
Yes, you can order pesto at a restaurant in Rome. Yes, you can choose your own style of pizza in Barbaresco. But no savvy, self-respecting italophile gastronome would ever indulge in such a transgression of the Italian culinary canon.
Eggplant alla parmigiana — aka eggplant parmigiana (without the articulated preposition), eggplant parmesan, or eggplant parm — is a dish that can generally be found in homes (although not in restaurants) throughout the country.
As the name reveals, it incorporates what many consider the greatest “food product” of all time: Parmigiano Reggiano, the famed friable cow’s milk cheese from Parma in Emilia (parmigiana is the demonym when used in reference to gastronomy; parmense is the city’s ethnonym).
The name doesn’t reveal however the dish’s connection to Sicily where eggplants were first consumed in Italy thanks to the island’s connection to the Arab and — some will be surprised to learn — to the Jewish world (Artusi, the still highly influential 19th-century cookery book writer from Romagna, writes about how only Jews in Italy ate eggplant at the time; the nightshade was believed to cause insanity but as Artusi points out with an antisemitic microaggression that I will forgive him, Jews have a “good nose” for great food).
To the northern cultural influence of Parma and the southern cultural legacy of Sicily, we must add yet another southern element: mozzarella. A great melanzane alla parmigiana is defined in part by its diversity of texture. The plastic cheese provides a sine qua non light and moreish chewiness to the best expressions of this timeworn and now international recipe.
Parmesan, Neapolitan, and Sicilian traditiones coquinariae combine to create a pan-Italian dish that I have enjoyed as far south as Lecce and as far north as Belluno.
To make a great melanzane alla parmigiana, the home cook must be patient. In the case of our family, the dish must be preceded by a tomato sauce prepared the night before to dress pasta. It’s that leftover sauce, with all of its flavors now perfectly fused and slightly desiccated, that really can take the recipe over the top.
Another important element is the olive oil you use — for both frying the eggplant rounds and greasing the pan. High-quality olive oil makes a marked difference in dishes like this.
For the recipe below, I haven’t included exact quantities. But that shouldn’t be a hindrance in making the dish the way we like it at our house. Years of translating and editing Italian recipes has taught me that the Italian indication quanto basta, an expression rendered in English as needed, is a good guide to all things in life. You just enough of each ingredient to achieve the desired result.
Melanzane alla Parmigiana
eggplant alla parmigiana
extra-virgin olive oil
tomato purée (passata)
freshly cracked pepper
basil leaves (optional)
eggplant (ideally globe or graffiti), sliced into thin rounds
Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated
Make the sauce:
Over low flame, gently heat the olive oil in a large pot, add the garlic and sauté but do not brown. Just as the garlic begins to turn golden in color, add the tomato purée and bring to a gentle simmer. Add the wine and when the alcohol has evaporated, season with salt, pepper, and chili flakes to taste. Simmer slowly for roughly 30 minutes and as soon as you remove the pot from heat, add 1 or 2 basil leaves (optional). Cool and reserve, ideally overnight, covered on the stovetop (not in the refrigerator). Remove garlic cloves and basil.
Purge the eggplant:
Generously season the eggplant rounds with kosher salt. Transfer to a colander and reserve for at least 30 minutes until the eggplant purges its bitter liquid. (This is an extremely important step.) Use a clean kitchen towel to absorb any excess liquid and reserve the rounds.
Fry the eggplant:
Heat a generous amount of olive oil (roughly 5-6 teeming tablespoons or as needed) to a broad frying pan over medium flame. Once the oil has heated through, add the eggplant rounds. Turn them once they have lightly browned on one side. Once they have browned on both sides, remove and distribute over a clean kitchen towel to remove any excess oil. (Using high-quality olive oil for frying the eggplant will make this dish even more tasty.)
Assemble the dish:
Grease an oven-ready casserole dish with olive oil. Add the eggplant rounds. Top with the sliced mozzarella. Smother with tomato sauce and top generously with the grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Fire the dish in a pre-heated oven at 350° F. for 30 minutes or until a golden brown crust forms. Remove from oven and cool.
At our house, eggplant alla parmigiana is either reheated to be served at dinner or served room temperature for lunch or for a late afternoon snack. One of my favorite ways to serve it is as a sandwich on a favorite crusty bread. In my experience, letting it cool (and then reheating it) is key.