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.
Mazzaro's deli counter
I still miss my fish market on Arthur Avenue and my neighborhood grocery’s fresh mozzarella but I was relieved to find, on moving to Florida, that New York doesn’t have a lock on Italian ingredients. Mazzaro’s, a large store in St. Petersburg with a carnival-like ambience, quickly became my go-to place for the basics. Here are four things this family-owned business does really well:
Salumi. Favorites among the generous deli case selection include fragrant mortadella, coppa, bresaola and prosciutto from Parma and San Daniele. The hams are trimmed properly, leaving a narrow band of white fat around the meat and, best of all, there’s a spit-polished red vintage Berkel for hand cranking silky slices of prosciutto. (Plus counter personnel trained to use that Ferrari of meat slicers–only once have I seen a deli worker struggle, producing thick, mangled pieces.)
Olive bar. Castelvetrano olives, Gaetas and inky oil-cured olives are among the offerings at the well-stocked bar. Some are seasoned but if you want the same variety unseasoned or already pitted, just ask a passing employee to fetch some from the kitchen. Customers are encouraged to taste and, to that end, toothpicks and a bin for disposing of them are provided (along with a sign basically begging customers not to spit the pits on the floor).
Olive oils. For everyday use, go for a tin of Partanna or bottle of Paesano–both are good fruity Sicilian oils. To trim the already reasonable price, I often buy the 3-liter tin–not unwieldy if you decant it a liter at a time into a smaller bottle (use a funnel). For drizzling, there are good choices too. Recently, I’ve been enjoying Marchesi di Frescobaldi’s Laudemio, a luscious goldy-green extra virgin.
Made-to-order sandwiches. I don’t usually buy the sandwiches but I gauge their goodness by the number of customers lined up for those and other prepared foods. The crowd gets even better on Fridays, the only day Little Sammy’s Big Fish Sandwich is offered. That I have eaten and found it not only delicious but a bargain at $5. If your group is easing into the weekend, buy a bottle of wine at the well-stocked wine department to sip with sandwiches on the patio. There’s no mark-up or corkage fee, and they supply the glasses.
Giovanni & Francesca Silvestri of Casa del Pane
Casa del Pane, on St. Pete Beach, is tiny compared to Mazzaro’s but well worth a visit. Even steven, here are four outstanding features of this store.
Bakery. Baked by owner Giovanni Silvestri, whose family comes from Bari, these are the best Italian breads I’ve found in the Tampa Bay area. Foccaccia, fat sesame-sprinkled semolina loaves and multi-wheat baguettes are three worth taking home. I buy more than I need, wrapping and freezing whatever I can’t use right away.
Canned tomatoes. La Valle is just one among a good selection of canned plum tomatoes from Italy. There are also two kinds of passata, a puree made from barely cooked tomatoes, and good tomato paste in a tube.
Niche products. The store is small but the purchasing is smart. Coluccio’s olive oil from the renowned Brooklyn store is excellent. After tasting the Sicilian prickly pear jam and honey, well priced at $7, I went back for more. The selection of Italian tuna ranges from Flott to pricy but worth-it ventresca (tuna belly).
Espresso bar. On weekdays, there are likely to be just a few regulars out and your barista may also be working the bakery/deli counter, but the vibe is great. Relaxing, which seems appropriate for a place just one block from the beach. When I stop by after meeting with my Italian conversation group, I’m sometimes lucky enough to have one of those could-almost-be-in-Italy moments, trading pleasantries with an Italian-born customer while sipping a caffe machiato.
Mazzaro’s and Casa del Pane are just two of the purveyors around here that make it easy to cook Italian. I’ve found others and, as a newcomer, look forward to seeking out the specialty stores I’ve heard about in Tampa Bay. Any fresh discoveries, I’ll make sure to share.