Parmigiana di melanzane alla siciliana (Sicilian Style Eggplant Parmesan)

Frankantipasti, contorno, Sicilia45 Comments

Parmigiana di melanzane alla siciliana (Sicilian Style Eggplant Parmesan)

The parmigiana di melanzane or Eggplant Parmesan that my grandmother Angelina used to make, a version typical of the hinterlands of Naples with its eggplant dipped in egg and fried, then layered with mozzarella, parmigiano-reggiano and tomato sauce and baked in a hot oven until bubbly and golden brown on top, will always be my hands-down favorite.

That said, the Sicilians also make a version of parmigiana, one in fact they insist is the original. I only found about this out rather late in life, back in the early days of this blog, when I posted Angelina’s recipe. I got a comment—as I recall the first ‘nastigram’ I’d received from a reader—from a Sicilian who let me know in no uncertain terms that Angelina’s recipe was all wrong and ‘real’ parmigiana came from Sicily.

Many years later, when I was in Sicily just before the pandemic for a family wedding, I had a chance to try parmigiana di melanzane alla siciliana (Sicilian Style Eggplant Parmesan) at a lovely little restaurant called Bisso Bistrot right off the Quattro Canti in central Palermo. With no mozzarella or egg coating and only lightly baked, it was indeed, quite different from the parmigiana Angelina used to make. Not only that, it was different from any version I’d tried before.

It’s a simpler and lighter take on the classic dish, arguably more suited to summer eating, and perhaps more appealing to modern tastes as well. It’s certainly a lot less work than Angelina’s version.

Personally speaking parmigiana di melanzane alla siciliana isn’t going to dethrone my grandmother’s version as my favorite version of parmigiana. That said, it makes for a nice change when I don’t care to fuss too much in the kitchen or want a less substantial parmigiana, one I could use as a side dish as well as an antipasto or even a light first course.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

To prep and fry the eggplant:

  • 1 kilo (2 lbs) medium to large eggplant, sliced
  • salt
  • Vegetable and/or olive oil for frying

To make the tomato sauce:

  • 1 large can of tomatoes, preferably imported San Marzano, passed through a food mill, or an equivalent amount of tomato passata
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, slightly crushed and peeled
  • Olive oil
  • A basil leaf or two
  • Salt

For assembling and baking the dish:

  • 100g (3-1/2 oz) grated parmigiano-reggiano
  • basil leaves
  • olive oil

Directions

Lay the eggplant slices in a colander as you do, salt them generously. Weigh them down with a plate with a can or other object on top. (See this post for an illustration.) Let them steep for at least an hour.

In the meanwhile, prepare a tomato sauce by combining the tomatoes, garlic, a few leaves of fresh basil, salt and a drizzle olive oil. Simmer for about 15 minutes, until the tomatoes have reduced into a fairly thick sauce. Discard the garlic.  

When the eggplants have steeped, pat them dry and then shallow fry them in the oil over a lively flame until they are golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels to soak up the excess oil.

Now it’s time to assemble the dish. Cover the bottom of a baking dish with a thin layer of the tomato sauce. Lay down a layer of eggplant slices, then smear with another ladleful of tomato sauce. Sprinkle generously with the cheese, then a few basil leaves here and there.

Repeat the process until you’ve used up the eggplant slices. (Typically you’ll have 3-4 layers.) Top up with sauce and a generous dusting of grated cheese.

Bake in a moderate (180C/350F) oven for about 30 minutes, until heated through and lightly brown on top.

Let rest for at least 10-15 minutes before serving. The dish can also be served at room temperature.

Parmigiana di melanzane alla siciliana (Sicilian Style Eggplant Parmesan)

Notes

As mentioned at the top, parmigiana di melanzane alla siciliana is a fairly simple dish, certainly a lot simpler than the parmigiana Angelina would make. But there are a few pitfalls to bear in mind.

Keeping it light

The main pitfall is the dish turning out greasy. That would be a shame since one of the pleasures of this alla siciliana version is its lightness. Frying the eggplant without any coating means the eggplant will absorb a lot of oil if you’re not careful.

To avoid this, you should take a few precautions. First off, don’t skip the initial steeping in salt. It’s not just about removing bitterness—which is no longer a problem with most modern cultivars of eggplants. Salting also breaks down the eggplant’s cell structure, which reduces the amount of oil it absorbs.

When you fry the eggplant, do it over a lively flame. The oil should bubble up around the eggplant slices without, however, smoking. When you’re done, lay out eggplant slices on paper towels, both top and bottom to absorb the excess oil.

Finally, go light on the oil in the tomato sauce. Even with all your precautions, chances are the eggplant will still absorb a fair amount of oil, so cut back on the oil in the sauce to compensate.

The tomato sauce

Speaking of which, the tomato sauce could be any simple, homestyle sauce. (See this post for some examples.) If you want to make it with fresh tomatoes in season, all the better. But be sure the tomatoes are full of flavor. Otherwise, good quality canned tomatoes or tomato passata are better bets.

Unlike Angelina’s parmigiana, where the sauce should be left loose, in this recipe there’s no coating to soak up liquid, and the lower cooking temperature means less evaporation, so the sauce should be fairly thick.

Don’t feel the need to drown the eggplant in sauce. A light covering over each layer is all you need, or the tomato will tend to overwhelm the rather delicate flavor of the eggplant. With the measurements called for here, you may well wind up with tomato sauce left over, but that’s fine. I figure better to have leftover sauce than run out mid-recipe. And if you cook Italian on regular basis, you can always find a use for a bit of sauce.

Baking

As my anonymous Sicilian “friend” told me, in a typical parmigiana di melanzane alla siciliana the top shouldn’t brown terribly much. The parmigiana I tasted in Palermo, in fact, had no discernible browning at all. That said, I’ve seen recipes that tell you to finish off the top with more cheese passed under a broiler to brown. So if that’s your thing, feel free, pace my fiend.

Variations

There are cheesier versions of parmigiana di melanzane alla siciliana that include other cheeses like provolone, Sicilian pecorino or a tangy but saltless pecorino cheese called tuma along with the parmigiano-reggiano. Some recipes mention caciocavallo, or Sicilian pecorino as alternatives to it. In fact, according to one of my favorite Sicilian food blogs, the original dish called for the local pecorino, not parmigiano-reggiano. Wanda and Giovanni Tornabene’s recipe in their lovely La cucina siciliana di Gangivecchio calls for bits of butter along with the grated cheese.

In some parts of Sicily, people layer in cooked ham, sliced boiled eggs or, according to Anna Gosetti della Salda’s classic encyclopedic survey of Italian regional cookery, Le ricette regionali italiane, even fried potatoes. These variations don’t particular appeal to me, but if you’re in the mood for a more substantial dish that could serve as a main course, they worth considering.

I’ve seen some Sicilian recipes for parmigiana that tell you to flour the eggplant, which is what they often do in Naples, but most have you fry the eggplant entirely ‘naked’. By the way, one variation you won’t see in Sicily, or in Campania or anywhere else in Italy, is breading the eggplant slices. That’s an Italian-American invention.

Although a complete survey of parmigiane from southern Italy lis beyond the scope of this post, I thought it’d be interesting to note that, in addition to the Campania and Sicilian versions, the Accademia italiana della cucina has an interesting recipe for a Puglian style parmigiana very much like Angelina’s. You dip the eggplant in egg, then layer it with tomato sauce, grated parmigiano-reggiano and mozzarella—but also crumbled and sautéed sausage which Angelina never added to hers. I also found interesting that Francesconi fries her eggplant naked but adds beaten egg to the tomato sauce.

Leftovers

Since parmigiana di melanzane alla siciliana can be served at room temperature, it’s perfectly fine to make ahead. It also reheats very nicely if you like it warm. And because it lacks any breading, you can stretch any leftovers, roughly chopped, as a dressing for pasta.

Campania or Sicily?

It may come as a surprise that you could make a dish called parmigiana without the cheese called parmigiano-reggiano. But in fact Sicilians will tell you that the dish wasn’t named after the cheese. Or the city of Parma for that matter. It’s a corruption of ‘parmiciana‘, the Sicilian word for the slats of a window shutters, which the slightly overlapping eggplant slices in the dish are said to resemble. That’s often cited as proof that the dish originated in Sicily and not Campania.

Some argue that the prevalence of eggplant dishes in Sicily also supports the dish’s Sicilian origins. Eggplant, which is native to India, came to Sicily via the Moors in the 8th century and spread to other parts of southern Italy from there. Taste Atlas conjectures that today’s parmigiana may have been invented in Sicily in the 16th century, when the tomato was brought to Italy from the New World by the Spanish.

That said, no one really knows for sure when or where parmigiana di melanzane was invented. There are proponents for the dish being invented in Campania as well, including the estimable Jeanne Caròla Francesconi, who points out that the earliest written recipes for the dish is from Naples, specifically the 19th century Neapolitan gastronomes Vincenzo Corrado and Ippolito Cavalcanti. If you read Italian, this Italian Wikipedia article provides an excellent summary of the various arguments.

Melanzane di parmigiana alla siciliana

Sicilian Style Eggplant Parmesan
Total Time2 hours
Course: Antipasto, Primo, Side Dish
Cuisine: Sicilia
Keyword: baked, vegetarian

Ingredients

For prepping and frying the eggplant

  • 1 kilo (2 lbs) medium to large eggplant sliced
  • salt
  • Vegetable and/or olive oil for frying

To make the tomato sauce

  • 1 large can tomatoes preferably imported San Marzano, passed through a food mill
  • 2-3 cloves garlic slightly crushed and peeled
  • olive oil
  • a basil leaf or two
  • salt

For assembling and baking the dish:

  • 100g (3-1/2 oz) parmigiano-reggiano grated
  • basil leaves
  • olive oil

Instructions

  • Lay the eggplant slices in a colander as you do, salt them generously. Weigh them down with a plate with a can or other object on top. (See this post for an illustration.) Let them steep for at least an hour. 
  • In the meanwhile, prepare a tomato sauce by combining the tomatoes, garlic, a few leaves of fresh basil, salt and a drizzle olive oil. Simmer for about 15 minutes, until the tomatoes have reduced into a fairly thick sauce. Discard the garlic.  
  • When the eggplants have steeped, pat them dry and then shallow fry them in the oil over a lively flame until they are golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels to soak up the excess oil. 
  • Now it's time to assemble the dish: Cover the bottom of a baking dish with a thin layer of the tomato sauce. Lay down a layer of eggplant slices, then smear with another ladleful of tomato sauce. Sprinkle generously with the cheese, then a few basil leaves here and there. 
  • Repeat the process until you've used up the eggplant slices. (Typically you'll have 3-4 layers.) Top up with sauce and a generous dusting of grated cheese. 
  • Bake in a moderate (180C/350F) oven for about 30 minutes, until heated through and lightly brown on top. 
  • Let rest for at least 10-15 minutes before serving. The dish can also be served at room temperature. 

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45 Comments on “Parmigiana di melanzane alla siciliana (Sicilian Style Eggplant Parmesan)”

  1. A family restaurant I used to frequent when I was on Long Isand for business served a dish called Mulignan a la Sicilian. It was breaded eggplant slices with ricotta in betwween and mozzerella on top, covered with sauce and baked.

    Yes, I know that mulignan is now a racial slur, but it is the word for eggplant in the Sicilian dialect.

    My mother never spoke Sicilian in the house, just like my grandmotehr never spoke English, so I am just now discovering that some of my favorite meals she made were originally Sicilian, such as spinach and eggs (spinaci e ova) and pork chops and beans (picciotta di porcu cu fagioli) until I watched Nick Stellino on PBS.

  2. Looks yummy, although my preference is Nonna Angelina’s kind. In my village, parmigiana is more often made with zucchine, or a comibination of melanzane and zucchine which is sooooo delicious. Ciao, Cristina

  3. It’s fascinating how regional variations can have such an impact on a beloved dish. Your description of the Sicilian parmigiana di melanzane alla siciliana has me curious and hungry.

  4. I don’t make eggplant parmigiana very often because while I like it made with flour and egg my husband likes it with breadcrumbs so there is always a debate 😊. I’m sure I would like this simple version.

  5. While I’m not a massive eggplant fan (I know, horrors for an Italian) this looks beautiful, Frank! I’ve never heard of the Sicilian version before. My family would love this!

    1. Well, you’re not alone. My dad doesn’t like eggplant, either! Shocking to me since his mother’s (my grandmother’s) parmigiana was out of this world delicious. But to each their own, I guess… Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Hi Frank, I love reading your blogs. Thank you! Too funny, only a couple of days ago I had some parmigiana in a local restaurant, and remember thinking, “not as good as my mother’s “ Too much cheese, not enough tomato. The eggplant a bit mushy. My mother was from the Basilicata region and had her own version. She dipped the eggplant in a batter and then fried it before layering it. Delicious! Even better the next day in a panino! My Sicilian ex mother in law made the simple version of just frying the eggplant. Both versions delicious. Greetings from Melbourne, Australia 😊

    1. You mother’s parmigiana sounds rather like my grandmother’s! Anyway I agree both are delicious and have their place. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. How interesting! I love Parmigiana, but I haven’t heard of the Sicilian style dish. It is definitely lighter, and it looks seriously delicious and appealing – need to try it. I won’t say it will necessarily replace Parmigiana I’ve loved for yeas, but I think I have enough space in my heart (and apparently stomach lol) for both variations!

  8. Frank, I really enjoyed this post. I often wonder if the fried, breaded, tomato sauce and cheese wasn’t a more modern version of Parmigiana . This style you shared more classic…or reflects a place.
    Love this recipe and eggplant are abundant.

    As always, thanks for sharing.

    Velva

    1. Thanks for your comment, Velva! It’s an interesting question. I’ve never looked into it thoroughly but I do understand that in one of the first written recipes for the dish (Cavalcanti’s in the 1838 Cucina teorico-pratica) has you dip the eggplant slices in flour and egg. These days, as you probably know, whether to coat or not to coat the eggplant, where it be in egg or flour or both, seems to depend on region. Actual breading (ie. dipping the slices in flour, egg then in breadcrumbs) seems to be an Italian-American thing. It’d be a very interesting topic to study!

  9. Your stories and historical explanations are fabulous Frank, thank you for taking the time for us. The Sicilian version is definitely more up my alley as it’s not as heavy, but I would never say no to your grandmother’s version!

  10. i love eggplant and garlic. the flavours sound so delicious Frank and light and tasty. Yum. And I’m not fussy about recipes having particular ingredients in them. Whatever is delicious I say 🙂

    1. Well ingredients can make a big difference but that’s the beauty of cookery. It never gets boring. At least not to me..

  11. You’re slicing the eggplant wrong. Slice it vertically along the long axis not into “rounds”. It will absorb less oil. Why? The scientific reason is you are cutting across the fibers that store the oil in the first place. It’s an old “nonna” trick actually.

    1. Color me dubious. Like most Italians I know, I actually use both methods depending on the dish. I’ve never noticed a difference in the amount of oil the vegetable absorbs. For this dish I prefer rounds for purely aesthetic reasons.

    1. I really don’t know, to be honest. What I do know that it is a modern invention and not a traditional recipe. I suspect it’s a kind of conflation of parmigiana with southern style lasagna.

  12. Frank – again and again you make me think! Oft I ‘come here’ from some inviting recipe with a dozen or more ingredients > to find utter simplicity where the chosen ingredient tells the story . . . making me feel – how much do I know at the end of the day !! Good! I don’t mind!! I even live in the country where many would think this dish ‘a bit boring’ but ‘chicken parmi’ (!!!) is the national dish !!!!

    1. Thanks so much, Aha, for the kind words. Alas, I also live in a country where this dish would seem too simple for many people and they think Chicken Parm is actually Italian…

  13. Hello Frank, thank you for this very enjoyable post. For the first time today I realised that as a half-Sicilian Italian born and bred in Italy I have never eaten a parmigiana with the eggplant slices dipped in egg and then breaded. Isn’t this so typically Italian? I trip to Naples is on order to make a proper comparison!

    1. Definitely! Would be really fun to do a tour around southern Italy to compare versions. Thanks for stopping by. Long time no hear! 🙂

  14. Sicilian! That’s the version I’ve always made, taught by a cook from Milan. Definitely no egg or breadcrumbs in any I’ve ever come across. Love it! One of my favourite things to make in tomato-glut season.

  15. Fabulous – I will be making this and I’ll pass on the link to your recipe!
    I think the bittereness in eggplant has mostly been bred out now, though they say that for cucumber and I had a horribly bitter one this week!

    1. Thanks MD! Hope you and your friends enjoy it. Yes, although I’ve heard that too I still steep my eggplants because you never know for sure. And as mentioned in the post there are other reasons to do than just removing the bitterness. That said, when I’m in a rush and especially when I’m dipping the eggplant in egg, I do sometimes skip it.

  16. Dear Frank,
    Would baking the eggplant, instead of frying it, help prevent too much oil from being absorbed? Then proceed with the rest of the method—therefore baking a second time, once assembled? What do you think?
    The recipe looks delicious and I plan to try it very soon. Off to the farmers market to by eggplant and tomatoes this morning!
    Thank you for your wonderful blog.

    1. In Italy the usual alternative to frying is grilling, but oven roasting could be a (non-traditional) way to reduce oil absorption. That said, you would still need to brush the eggplant slices with oil otherwise eggplant take on a rather unpleasant texture.

      Hope you like this! (Actually I’m pretty sure you will.) And thanks so much for the kind words.

  17. This is definitely coming to our table soon! I love the lighter approach though, like you, still love the versions like Angelina’s. Each has its place. Thanks for the tip about making the sauce a bit thick – that makes sense. Thanks, Frank!

  18. I can’t wait to try your recipe. Love eggplant and will use Romano because it was what my grandmother, who came from the little town of Tricarico, used exclusively. I enjoy so much receiving all your recipes.

  19. As food bloggers we always remember those “nastigrams” don’t we Frank? Everyone has their own opinions (including that comment above). I say cook how you want and with what ingredients you want. It’s your blog and I was already drooling when I looked at the photographs and read through the description of your Eggplant Parmesan! This is lovely!

    1. Yes, it’s unfortunately a part of online life these days… I do try to keep things authentic here so constructive criticism (from people who actually know what they’re talking about) are always welcome. But in this case the reader was just being a chauvinist, since the Campanian version is just as “real” as the Sicilian one. But the comment did bring to my attention a rivalry I didn’t even know existed. So I’m grateful… sort of!

      Anyway, thanks so much for the comment! I do hope you give it a try since it is quite tasty.

  20. Dear Frank, I’ve been one of your biggest fans for a dozen years. I have never quibbled with a single one of your recipes. However, here I must make a comment which I hope you will take as respectful and good-hearted. You mentioned, correctly, that pecorino siciliano was the cheese that would have been used here. And thank you for dispelling the myth held by so many that “parmigiana” has something to do with “parmigiano.” But why, after all that, did you substitute the Sicilian pecorino with parmigiano reggiano? It is a different animal (literally) and a taste that is foreign to the Southern Italian cuisine of the olden days. I never even tasted parmigiano until later in life; it was always pecorino romano, which was never missing from our refrigerator, or from the those of my grandparents and aunts and uncles. And as you know, the best-loved Sicilian recipes using ricotta — e.g. cannoli and cassata — all use ricotta di pecora. True, ricotta di pecora is as difficult to find as pecorino siciliano. However my point is that the flavor of the sheep’s milk is the flavor that distinguished the cuisine of our forebears. I know that Cavalcanti has a few recipes which combine butter and parmigiano. However that was the exception rather than the rule. Parmigiano is probably the most abused ingredient in Italian-American cuisine; it’s simply not what people used. Off my soapbox now, and still one of your biggest fans!

    1. Thanks, Leonardo. I understand where you’re coming from. There are two reasons why I opted for parmigiano-reggiano in the main recipe.

      First, for practical reasons, thinking about my readers. How many would be able to source pecorino siciliano? Probably very, very few. It’s certainly nowhere to be found where I live. Nor online as far as I can see. And out of curiosity, I checked out two possible sources, cheese.com and the vaunted Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York—even they don’t carry it. Yes, pecorino romano is sold lots of places, but as much as I love for many dishes, it’s especially sharp and above all salty, so not in my opinion a good substitute for other pecorinos, toscano, sardo or siciliano.

      Which brings me to my second reason. As you probably know I research all of my recipes extensively from Italian sources. And for this one, 90% of the recipes I’ve seen—and here I’m referring to Italian and specifically Sicilian sources, call for parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Even that Sicilian food blog I cite in the post, which mentions pecorino siciliano as the original ingredient, calls for parmigiano-reggiano in its own recipe, with pecorino siciliano as optional. I’m guessing this is for the same reason of practicality. If parmigiano-reggiano is good enough for most Italians (including Sicilians) then it’s good enough for me. With, of course, information for readers in the Notes if they want to take it a step further and try to search out the more esoteric ingredients.

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