What Americans think of as eggplant parmigiana isn’t quite the same in Italy. © Photo by Francesca Di Meglio
Eggplant parmigiana is a favorite dish in Italy and the United States alike. But you might be surprised to learn about the differences between the two versions in each country. For starters, in Italy it is a contorno or side dish, not a main dish. Indeed, the waiters in Italy might look at you funny if that’s all you order. It’s like asking just for a side of broccoli and nothing else.
In any event, there are many other differences, too. In the United States, we sometimes refer to the dish as eggplant parmesan or eggplant parm. We need to differentiate it from chicken or veal parm, which don’t really exist in Italy. On the other hand, Italians call the dish la parmigiana. They don’t even have to confirm it’s eggplant. That’s already understood.
The Biggest Difference Lies in the Recipe
Italians cook up eggplant parmigiana in a different way than Americans. To begin, the ingredients are different. Italians use fresh mozzarella, which is wetter than the blocks of mozzarella many Americans use. Italians make the marinara sauce from scratch. Some Americans do, too, but many home cooks use jars of the stuff.
But by far the widest gap between Italian eggplant parmigiana and the American version is breadcrumbs. Italians never coat the eggplant in breadcrumbs first, which means no eggs or anything else. Instead, they thinly slice and fry the naked suckers in olive oil. When you get comfortable breaking the rules, you can use Nonno’s Sunday Funday sauce instead of the marinara. The meat makes it a heartier dish.
If you want to make traditional, genuine Italian eggplant parmigiana like I did as evidenced by the photo above, then here are your instructions:
Recipe for Eggplant Parmigiana
Eggplants (about 3 medium to large eggplants)
Reggiano-Parmigiano cheese (the real stuff imported from Italy, not Parmesan)
Marinara sauce (see recipe below)
Thinly slice the eggplants. You can keep the skin on if you like them that way. Most Italians keep the skin. I don’t like it, so I peel it off first. It’s up to you. Make sure to generously salt both sides of the eggplant and place it between paper towels to remove excess water. You should leave this about an hour at least. Some people leave it for up to three hours. Removing the water will make your eggplant parm less soggy. The eggplant itself will be crispier, too.
Heat about an inch of olive oil in a frying pan. When the oil is nice and hot, fry those slices of eggplant. After they become lightly browned on both sides, place them on a dish with paper towels to remove excess oil. Continue to fry until all the eggplant is done.
Sprinkle some marinara sauce on the bottom of a baking dish. Add a layer of fried plant on top of that sauce. Next, add pieces of mozzarella and a layer of Parmigiano cheese. Keep making those layers in that order until you hit the top of the baking dish. Be generous with the Parmigiano on the top layer, so it makes a sort of crust on top. It also looks more delectable.
Finally, put it in a preheated oven at 375 degrees F. (You know your oven; if it gets too hot, you might opt for 350 instead of 375). You want everything to blend together nicely and for the cheese to melt. I cover it with aluminum foil initially. About halfway through cooking, I take off the aluminum. The reason is I don’t want the cheese to get burned, just bubbly and browned. It usually needs to cook between 40 minutes and an hour, depending on the size of your baking dish and oven. I was using an Italian oven in Italy when I made the one in the photo. It took about 50 minutes at 150 C.
Many Italians like to make la parmigiana a day ahead because it usually tastes better after a day. In that case, you can just heat it the next day, and you might take it out of the oven a bit earlier the first time around.
Recipe for Marinara Sauce
Tomatoes (chopped, about 2 to 3 lbs., preferably from your garden – or Nonno’s)
Olive oil (about a tablespoon)
Garlic (2 cloves)
Fresh basil (a handful, preferably from your garden – or Nonno’s)
Salt (1 to 2 tsp., depending on how many tomatoes you are using)
Americans often include onions in their marinara sauce. Italians do not. In fact, they don’t even always keep the garlic in the sauce until the end. This is the Italian version. Saute smashed garlic (not minced) in a thin layer of olive oil in a saucepan. Remove the browned garlic. Then, add the chopped tomatoes and the juice that spilled out onto the cutting board. I don’t worry so much about the seeds because I use a mesh sieve to strain the sauce when I’m done cooking.
Next, add the salt to the tomatoes. If you’d like, you can add a little more olive oil for flavor, too. Then, bring the tomatoes in their juices to a boil. Lower the flame, so that the sauce simmers and thickens. Stir frequently. When the sauce is about 10 minutes from being done, add the basil.
Finally, pass the sauce through a sieve. I use the bottom of my wooden spoon push it through. Then, I toss the seeds and skins. Your sauce is ready. You can keep it in a jar in the fridge for a day or two. Or you can just put it to work immediately on top of gnocchi, pasta, or in this case, in eggplant parmigiana.
Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press, 2012). She also has written the Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus.com since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10.