Wine Pairings: An Essential Sicilian Duo
The evocative wines of Mount Etna deserve the most authentic Sicilian accompaniment you can muster—and what passes for “eggplant parm” in most Italian-American restaurants (and households) is not going to get it done. Here’s a road map to one of the greatest wine/food pairing experiences you’ll ever have.
There is a direct correlation between my mother-in-law Lucia’s Eggplant alla Parmigiana—called Melanzana in Padedda in the local dialect of her hometown, in Sicily’s Messina province—and Mount Etna, the volcano that grumbles and looms large near her coastal town: Lava. Sure, I’m being a little hyperbolic, but you haven’t tasted Lucia’s eggplant (yet), so you have to trust me on this. Once you commit to taking the time to assemble this masterpiece, you will watch incredulously as it coalesces in the pan, simmering slowly on the stovetop, turning from what you thought “eggplant parm” should look like into something quite different. In a word, it is molten; it’s almost like eggplant parm liquified, with the ability to be scooped, dipped, spread and slurped.
You might look at the recipe below and think, That’s not eggplant parm. And you’d be right. What we here stateside call eggplant parm is something else; something I consider institutionally codified and calcified into a mass of greasy fried eggplant buried under mozzarella and sauce. I grew up hating it (and I grew up surrounded by some amazing Neapolitan nonne and aunts who knew their way around the kitchen). But maybe you love the eggplant parm from your local pizzeria or ristorante. I’m not here to judge (well, maybe a little), but I’d ask you to consider this version in the spirit of a fun comparison. Try it side-by-side with your local favorite and see where it takes you. I know where it takes me: to a table set al fresco near the beach in Tonnarella, where Lucia and her sister, Sarina, serve it with crusty bread and properly chilled red wine, either the local Mamertino di Milazzo or, for a direct connect to the lava, Etna Rosso.
What makes Lucia’s eggplant so exceptional? A couple of things, actually. For starters, she prefers to use the softball-sized, round, violet-shaded Sicilian eggplants that are only available seasonally; for the off-season, she’ll use the classic dark ones you can find in any market. A pro tip for picking eggplants: The lighter the better. Unlike citrus, which we want to be heavy (filled with juice), heavy eggplant equals lots of bitter seeds. Which leads to the next distinction, bitterness: Lucia always peels and salts her eggplants before washing and cooking to extract bitterness (see recipe). Regarding cooking, you’ll want to make Lucia’s tomato sauce first, which you can do while the eggplants are resting with salt. If you don’t have fresh plum tomatoes, you can use canned, of course, with her recipe. Now let’s talk about “coating,” because most American eggplant parm calls for dredging the slices through egg, flour, and egg again (or worse, breadcrumbs!), but not here. This is how you achieve the ethereal lightness and impossible richness of this dish; less is more. And finally, there is no mozzarella in this version, but rather the Parmigiano-Reggiano that lends its name to the dish.
I know SommSelect subscribers are big fans of the wines of Mount Etna, and while my first choice for this dish would be a smoky, spicy Etna Rosso (at about 60 degrees, of course), I wouldn’t turn away a Bianco or Rosato from the volcano, either. Bright acidity is the key, regardless of color. Buon appetito!
Mamma Lucia’s Melanzana in Padedda
3 pounds medium eggplants (preferably the round, violet-colored Sicilian variety)
2 tablespoons kosher salt
½ to 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, more if the eggplant is not salted
About 1 ½ tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano
A handful of basil leaves, washed and spun dry
Lucia’s Tomato Sauce (see below)
To salt the eggplant, peel the eggplants with a vegetable peeler and slice them crosswise into rounds 1/3-to-1/2-inch thick. Using a basin or the kitchen sink, arrange a layer on a plate and sprinkle lightly with salt; repeat layering and salting until all the rounds are salted. Weight them with a pot filled with water and set aside for one hour. Then rinse the slices and, taking a few slices in your hand at a time, squeeze out the excess liquid like a sponge, repeating until all the slices are dry.
To fry the eggplant, heat 1 or 2 large nonstick or well-seasoned cast-iron skillets over moderate-high heat. Add about 1-1/2 tablespoons of oil to each and swirl to coat. When the oil is hot and shimmering, but not smoking, arrange a single layer of eggplant slices in each pan. Cover and cook until the underside is golden, 3 to 5 minutes; turn the slices with a spatula, drizzle in additional oil as necessary, and continue cooking, shifting the slices around occasionally until golden and tender, 3 to 4 minutes longer. Remove the slices as they are done onto a large platter and set aside to cool. Repeat until all the eggplant has been fried.
To assemble, spoon about ½ cup of the tomato sauce into the bottom of a 11 or 12-inch flameproof casserole or skillet. Arrange a layer of eggplant slices over the sauce and spread these with about ¼ cup tomato sauce. Sprinkle lightly with Parmigiano, and scatter torn basil leaves on top (roughly 2 inches apart). Repeat, building up 4 to 5 layers until all the eggplant is used. Spread the top with ½ cup tomato sauce, a final sprinkling of Parmigiano and basil leaves. (The casserole can be assembled at this point up to a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate, letting come to room temperature 3 hours before the final cooking.)
Cover and cook the casserole over low heat, pressing the eggplant down occasionally with a spatula, for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the oil begins to bubble up along the sides. Do not be tempted to rush to process by turning up the heat. Uncover and continue cooking about 10 minutes longer. The casserole should be tender and melting, with spots of oil bubbling on the top. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Mamma Lucia’s Tomato Sauce
Makes about 2 ½ cups with crushed tomatoes; 1-3/4 to 2 cups with whole peeled plum tomatoes
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped (about ¾ cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes (optional)
One 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes or drained whole peeled plum tomatoes,
Pour the olive oil into a large skillet and stir in the onion. Over medium-low heat, sauté the onion until golden, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until it just starts to color. Add the chili pepper flakes if desired (they will add just a hint of appetizing heat), stirring them into the oil to release their flavor. Add the tomatoes. (If using whole tomatoes, break them up with the edge of a kitchen spoon.) Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn the flame down to medium; simmer until the oil rises to the top and separates from the sauce, 15 to 20 minutes.
Editor’s Note: Anthony Giglio is a sommelier, wine writer, educator, and one of the most sought-after speakers/hosts in the world of wine and food (learn more about him at anthonygiglio.com). He is also one of my oldest and dearest friends. This was my way of getting my hands on a recipe I’ve been coveting for years. “Mamma Lucia” is a national treasure. Alla salute! — D.L.