Looking back on the highlights of summer that has just ended (yes, Italians are still swimming in Positano and Cinque Terre) and getting ready for the beautiful Autumn bounty, there is one seasonal summer dish that I am already nostalgic about. Sadly eggplant are no longer in season, so I will have to wait for a full Earth’s rotation around the sun before I can make Parmigiana di Melanzane again.
The popular southern Italian dish of layered eggplant, tomato, basil, grated Parmigiano cheese and mozzarella is as representative of Italy as is the similarly colored red, white and green national flag. The difference in the way Italians name this preparation is subtle. Melanzane alla Parmigiana and Parmigiana di Melanzane are two distinct preparations which should not be considered as the same thing. While Melanzane alla Parmigiana is a much simpler and more modern Sicilian dish, made with dark eggplant (preferably the dark Violetta lunga palermitana kind), sliced in rondelles, fried in vegetable oil and baked with tomato sauce, basil and Pecorino Romano – Parmigiana di Melanzane is a more complex Neapolitan affair.
Not at all related to Parma – other than in the use of Parmigiano cheese – this recipe needs a number of steps. Slender and young purple eggplant are sliced lengthwise and double dipped in egg wash and flour and then deep fried. These are then layered with partial overlap like Venetian blinds (in Naples such blinds used to be called “parmigiane”) in an oven dish, slathered with rich tomato sauce and dressed with fresh basil, mozzarella and dusted with copious amounts of grated Parmigiano cheese. This layering is repeated until all the eggplant have been used. The assembled pan is then set in a hot oven to bake.
Now Parmigiana di Melanzane has lost its Neapolitan exclusive and is cooked all over Southern Italy. Molise, Basilicata and Puglia make their own versions, particularly Calabria adding spicy sausage, smoked provola cheese, hard-boiled eggs, Parmigiano and omnipresent tomato sauce.
This very humble dish is now served in gourmet restaurants and graces white tablecloth tables all over the country. Of course it is still very much made at home on special occasions and big family gatherings, mostly when eggplant is in full season. Season which, alas, is over.
Parmigiana di Melanzane can be prepared in roughly 1 hour and 15 minutes.
6-7 eggplants (preferably purple teardrop shaped)
2 cups of canned tomatoes, crushed
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch of fresh basil leaves
5 fistfuls of flour
1 medium mozzarella (around 4 oz), drained and diced
1/2 cup Parmigiano cheese, grated
Vegetable oil for frying
Olive oil for sautéing
Salt to taste
Preheat oven to 180° C (350° F).
Slice the eggplant lengthwise, no thicker than 1 cm (1/2-inch). If the eggplants are large, rid them of their bitter juices by sprinkling the slices with sea salt and placing them in a colander weighed down between two plates for about 10 minutes.
Brush off any leftover salt, and dredge the eggplant slices in flour and set aside.
Heat a generous amount of vegetable oil in a large frying pan.
Beat the eggs in a large mixing bowl and dip the dredged eggplant slices in it briefly. You can choose to this once, but tradition prescribes for a double dip.
Fry the eggplant slices in the skillet for about 3 minutes on each side, then rest them on a paper towel to absorb excess grease.
If you’ll be using mozzarella di bufala, you’ll want to set it in a colander or a sieve to lose some of its liquid, which could make final outcome too watery.
Now the sauce. In a saucepan, sauté the minced garlic in 5 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil. When it begins to tan lightly, add the tomatoes and cook for 20 minutes. Add a dash of salt and some fresh basil leaves.
In a greased deep oven dish, alternate layers of the tomato sauce, fried eggplant slices and diced mozzarella. Sprinkle each layer with a generous dusting of grated Parmigiano and more basil leaves.
Repeat the layers and top with a final blanket of tomato sauce, fresh torn basil leaves and lots of grated Parmigiano. This helps to form a delicious crust.
As mentioned, everyone makes their parmigiana differently. The video below shows a modern rendition of the beloved dish. Can you smell the aroma of summer?
How do you make yours?
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.