We all know that pizza was invented in Naples, Italy. Another of their amazing and popular dishes is eggplant parmesan, and although their claim to its creation is not quite so certain, the Neapolitan version is a tasty dish indeed.
Naples is on my list of Italian places to visit when travel resumes, but until then I’m having to content myself with reading, thinking and writing about some of their favourite foods. Of course, I would love to make a really good pizza at home, but I’m not sure it’s possible without a proper wood fired oven. When we were filming my series Escapes with Nigel, we discovered a purpose built one at The Spirit Tree Cidery, where in addition to the obvious beverage, master baker and owner Thomas Wilson makes amazing breads, pies and pizza. I’d say his pizza is as good as you can get anywhere and I’m not going to compete.
Pizzeria Port’Alba, opened in Naples in 1738 and still going strong, claims to be the first pizzeria in the world. Reports say that each pie is crafted with a just-thick-enough crust that’s somehow perfectly holds the melted mozzarella and tomato sauce at its center. If I get there, I’ll enjoy a stroll around the bookstore-packed neighborhood as well. In fact, I imagine it’s hard to get a bad pizza anywhere in the town, but Di Matteo is reckoned not just to be the best in Naples, but the rest in the world! Open since 1936, they specialize in folded up pizza, fresh out of the oven, wrapped in paper to eat as you go, and pizza fritta, a deep-fried ricotta and provolone cheese pizza. Many local pizzerias serve only two types: marinara, named for the mariners who first brought tomatoes back from South America; and Margherita, topped with tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil representing the red, white and green colours of the Italian flag, named after Queen Margharita of Savoy in 1889, and not to be confused with the margarita cocktail.
Today, I’m in search of a perfect eggplant parmesan, known in Italy as parmigiana di melanzane. The big debate is whether to flour or breadcrumb the eggplant before frying, or leave it alone. Martha Stewart, citing a popular American recipe, uses breadcrumbs.
At the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, rising Chef Antonino Montefusco presides over the Terrazza Bosquet restaurant. Although not strictly in Naples—Sorrento is on the other side of the Gulf of Naples—the chef has some firm views on a dish that’s been presented at the family owned hotel for almost 200 years. “The version we know today first appeared in print in Ippolito Cavalcanti’s Cucina teorico-pratica, published in Naples in 1837,” Montefusco says. “It was a dish of la cucina povera, ‘the kitchen of the poor.’ It’s about making great food with simple, available ingredients. It was not just the eggplant parmigiana that helped us win [our] Michelin star. No doubt the reinterpretation of a traditional dish, so strongly flavored and so evocative, was part of the success.” But he douses his eggplant with flour and egg, so I move on.
One obsessed writer, Clifford A. Wright author of A History of Eggplant Parmesan, definitively states the dish originates in Naples, with sources dating back to 1786. The modern version with Parmigiano-Reggiano and tomato ragù as key ingredients develops there a little later as tomatoes become popular.
Another writer concludes:
“Get into your own kitchen before the last of the fresh, deep-purple eggplants leave us in the dreary grip of winter.”
And so to work.
Parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant Parmesan)
- 2 1/2 pounds eggplant (about 2 to 3 medium eggplants)
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
- 2 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 398 ml can tomato sauce + 1 156 ml can tomato paste
- 2 eggs
- 3 oz / 100 g Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
- 7 oz / 200 g fresh buffalo mozzarella or boccocino
- 1/2 cup basil, washed, dried, shredded
Preparation and cooking
- Prepare the eggplant: wash and dry, cut off the cap, slice lengthwise into thin slices. Line a tray or colander with paper towels, lay the slices out and sprinkle on both sides with salt. Cover with more paper towels and set aside for 1 hr. Wipe off the excess salt, pat dry, pressing down to remove all excess water. Sating not only draws out the excess water, making frying easier, absorbing less oil, but also removes any bitterness.
- Prepare the sauce: fry garlic and onion in hot EVOO until translucent. Add tomato purée and simmer for about 20 mins, until sauce begins to thicken. Stir in shredded basil and set aside to cool.
- Fry a few eggplant slices at a time in hot EVOO, making sure they are completely dry or the oil will splatter, until they are well browned. Set aside to drain on paper towels.
- When the sauce has cooled, pour about 1/3rd into another bowl. Beat the eggs and mix them into the remaining 2/3rds sauce. TIP: ensure the sauce is completely cool or the eggs will scramble.
- Preheat oven to 350°F / 180°C.
- Cover the bottom of a rectangular baking dish (about 5 x 10 in / 14 x 25 cm) with a layer of plain sauce. Add a layer of eggplant, then a layer of sauce with egg, grated Parmigiano and pieces of mozzarella. Repeat until all the ingredients are used up, finishing with a final layer of plain sauce and lots of the cheeses. Two eggplants will typically make 2 layers.
- Bake for 30 mins or until the cheese on top is melted and golden. Cover and set aside for 1 hr before serving, to allow the flavours to mingle. Even better warmed up the next day.
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Categories: Simply food