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.
To prep and fry the eggplant:
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) medium to large eggplant, sliced
- 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
For assembling and baking the dish:
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) grated parmigiano-reggiano
- basil leaves
- olive oil
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
For prepping and frying the eggplant
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) medium to large eggplant sliced
- 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
For assembling and baking the dish:
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) parmigiano-reggiano grated
- basil leaves
- olive oil
- 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.