If you follow me on Instagram (and you should!), you’ll know I just got back from Italy.
I’ll save you the details (for now) and jump straight to it. The best thing I ate was this silky eggplant parmigiana at a little cafe near the Vatican, or Vaticano for those who parla l’italiano. Layers and layers of baked eggplant, zucchini, Pomodoro, buffalo mozzarella (unbelievably fresh), and Parmigiano cheese. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
So, I did some research and tried my hand at recreating my favorite Italian meal. Here’s what I learned.
Parmigiana is a classic Italian dish that is traditionally made up of fried eggplant baked together with tomato sauce and Parmigiano cheese and commonly known as melanzane alla parmigiana. It’s named after the style of preparation rather than the cheese commonly found in it. The alla parmigiana in melanzane alla parmigiana roughly translates to “in the style of Parma”, a region in Emilia-Romagna or Northern Italy and has no correlation to Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The dish starts with its titular ingredient, eggplants. While there are many types of eggplants, Italian eggplants are smaller and have a thin skin, which doesn’t need to be peeled away before baking. These tiny eggplants are sliced thin and fried, without breading, in oil until crisp and tender.
The fried layers are placed in a casserole dish and topped with your favorite Pomodoro sauce, preferably made by someone’s nonna and then topped again with fresh buffalo mozzarella. It’s ok to use fresh mozzarella here because the eggplant will soak up any of the excess moisture. Sprinkle some Parmigiano on top and repeat the layering process.
Next, the whole dish is baked in a hot oven to help soften the eggplant and to absorbs all of the flavors of the sauce. The melted cheese will bind everything together into one cohesive dish.
Once the dish is hot and bubbly, remove the parmigiana from the oven and let is rest for 10 minutes. This step is critical and allows everything to set and absorb any leftover moisture. Then, serve with some crusty bread and a glass of red wine. Perfetto!
What didn’t: While not necessary, something savory like a hand-full of breadcrumbs on top could be nice.
Know this: Let the parmigiana cool for 10 minutes before serving. This allows the dish to set so it won’t fall apart when serving. Tent the baking dish with tinfoil if you are worried about it staying warm.
- 650 g (about 4 small) zucchini – washed and trimmed
- extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 oz (1/2 cup) white wine vinegar
- 2 oz (1/4 cup) sugar
- 1 pinch red pepper flakes
- 4 large garlic cloves – thinly sliced
- 4 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves
- 4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
- 500 g or (about 4 small) Italian eggplants – washed and trimmed
- 48 oz (6 cups) pomodoro sauce – recipe below
- 16 oz (about 2 balls) buffalo mozzarella – sliced 1/8-inch thick
- Parmigiano cheese – for grating
- Freshly cracked pepper and flaky sea salt – to season
Slice the zucchini lengthwise (top to bottom) into 1/4-inch thick slices. Place the zucchini in a colander, sprinkle with salt, and set aside to drain for 2 hours.
After the zucchini drain, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a grill pan over medium-high heat. Grill until slightly charred on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a shallow bowl and scatter the garlic, basil, and parsley on top.
In a small saucepan, bring the vinegar and sugar to a boil over high heat. Add the red pepper flakes and a pinch of salt. Pour the hot brine over the zucchini and let marinate for at least 1 hour but preferably 3 hours.
While the zucchini marinates, preheat the oven to 450 F.
Oil a baking sheet with 3 to 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. Slice each eggplant lengthwise (top to bottom) into 1/4-inch thick slices. Transfer the eggplant slices to the oiled baking sheet, season with salt and drizzle a little more oil on top. Bake the eggplant without turning until the slices begin turning brown, about 15 minutes. Remove the eggplant from the oven and place them on a plate to cool.
When you are ready to assemble the parmigiana, preheat the oven to 350 F and have your sauce, eggplant, and zucchini ready. Slice the mozzarella into 1/8-inch thick slices and place next to the other ingredients. In a medium-sized baking dish (or individual ones), spread some sauce just to cover the bottom. Place a slice of eggplant on top of the sauce and then enough zucchini slices to cover it. Try to keep everything roughly the same size. Cut the zucchini to make it fit. Place a slice of mozzarella over the vegetables and sprinkle with about 2 teaspoons of grated Parmigiano. Gently press down to keep everything in place. Repeat until you have 4 layers of ingredients. Top with some sauce and more Parmigiano. Season with a little salt and pepper.
Transfer the assembled dish to the oven and bake until the vegetables are very soft and the sauce is bubbling, about 30-45 minutes.
To serve, transfer one stack to an individual plate and top with freshly grated Parmigiano.
- 15 ml (2 tablespoons) extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 large garlic cloves – peeled and halved
- 1/2 large yellow onion – sliced
- leaves from 1 spring of fresh rosemary
- 1 fresh bay leaf
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1.2 kg (6 cups) canned whole peeled tomatoes – pureed and strained
- 115 g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter – cut into small cubes
- kosher salt
In a medium pot, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, onion, rosemary, bay leaf, and red pepper flakes and saute until the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes. If the onions begin to brown, lower the heat. Add the tomatoes and butter and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is slightly thick and soft but not pasty, about 45 minutes. The butter should emulsify into the sauce. Season with salt. Set a fine-mesh strainer over a large bowl and pour the sauce into the strainer. Discard the solids.
To store, transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 2 days or freeze up to 1 month.