Nobody needs more than one recipe for eggplant parmesan, any more than you need multiple methods for perfect scrambled eggs or a perfect grilled cheese sandwich.
Problem was my eggplant parmesan recipe, acquired years ago from an Italian-American cook, wasn’t perfect. The eggplant slices were brushed with oil and broiled. It contained ricotta as well as mozzarella and parmesan. Sounds okay but the result was always a bit disappointing. Eventually I drifted away from it.
Then I tasted eggplant parm–otherwise known as melazane alla parmigiana–as executed by Maria Silvestri, co-owner of Casa del Pane in St. Pete Beach. Under a bronzed crust, a meltingly delicious marriage of fried eggplant, cheeses and tomato sauce.
At Casa del Pane, you can savor a mozzarella & grilled veggie sandwich made with Pugliese bread still warm from their ovens. Or sip a cappuccino at the bar while chatting in Italian with a regular. Or stock up on artisanal pasta, regional wines and choice canned tomatoes.
But you can’t eat Anna’s eggplant parmesan at Casa del Pane. “It’s a family dish we enjoy at home, made the way I learned in Puglia,” she says.
Anna agreed to share the recipe for publication in Food + Art: Cooking around Tampa Bay with the Museum of Fine Arts (buy a copy if you haven’t already). To make sure I had it right, I asked lots of questions. Are the eggplants peeled? “I do but it’s the cook’s decision.” How thick are the slices? She held thumb and forefinger a fraction of an inch apart. What kind of canned tomatoes? “A good imported brand such as La Valle.” What else makes her version special? ”No breadcrumbs! I think they make the dish too heavy.”
The eggplant is fried, after being dipped in flour and beaten egg, and I’ve never had a guest who didn’t ask for a second helping. I think there’s a connection. That never happened with my broiled eggplant parm.
I could give you the argument that, when food is fried properly, most of the oil stays in the pan. That happens to be true, but the real reason I make this classic dish Maria’s way: It tastes perfect.
Maria’s Eggplant Parmesan
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 (28-ounce) can good-quality plum tomatoes in puree
4 small eggplants (about 2½ pounds)
¾ cup all-purpose flour, or as needed
4 or 5 eggs
1 pound mozzarella cheese, coarsely grated, divided
4 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano, grated, divided
1 cup basil leaves, divided
1. Make sauce: Saute onion with olive oil until golden in a medium saucepan. Add tomatoes and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook at a brisk simmer, breaking up tomatoes with a wooden spoon, until onion is cooked and tomatoes soften, about 10 minutes. Cool to warm. Using a blender or food processor, process to a chunky sauce.
2. Preheat oven to 450°F. Peel eggplant or not, depending on preference. Cut in ½-inch slices. Place flour in a shallow bowl and, in a second bowl, beat eggs with 1 teaspoon salt. Coat slices with flour on both sides, dusting off excess. Dip in egg, allowing excess to drop off.
3. Fill large deep skillet with at least ½ inch vegetable oil. Heat over medium-high heat until shimmering. Fry eggplant until golden brown on both sides. Drain on a platter lined with paper towels and blot with more paper towels.
4. Ladle sauce over bottom of a 13x9x2-inch baking pan (see Note). Arrange a layer of eggplant on top. Sprinkle with half the mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano and basil. Repeat layers, finishing with sauce and cheeses.
5. Bake uncovered for 25 to 30 minutes until bubbling and browned on top. Cool at least 15 minutes before cutting.
Note: In a smaller pan, you may need to repeat the sequence of layers three times rather than twice.