Even the worst eggplant Parmesan is pretty good. But one thing it will never be is unapologetically crispy.
“Eggplant Parm is just kind of …,” Angie Rito paused before finishing her sentence, “ … mushy?” Not in a bad way, said Ms. Rito, who owns Don Angie, an Italian American restaurant in the West Village, but “almost custardy, soft.”
The flavors and textures meld. No one component stands out. Scott Tacinelli, who also owns Don Angie (and is married to Ms. Rito), said the classic dish might not even be about the eggplant, but about how it becomes “a vehicle to hold everything together,” a blank canvas to take in flavor, especially that of olive oil.
If you’re not using “a whole bottle of olive oil” when making eggplant Parm, he said, then what are you even doing?
Like Elton John and Kiki Dee, Ms. Rito and Mr. Tacinelli finish each other’s sentences, often talking simultaneously — not over each other, but through.
When asked, for instance, about the difference between Italian and Italian American food, the couple, who co-wrote the 2021 cookbook “Italian American,” baton-passed the answer.
Twenty years ago, Mr. Tacinelli said, “Italian food in the United States was just Italian American food, right?” Ms. Rito added that what became widely known as Italian American was “mostly derived from Southern Italian traditions” that came to this country with the earliest immigrants from Naples and Sicily.
Eggplant, the versatile purple nightshade, has long been central to both Italian and Italian American cuisines. (Ms. Rito and Mr. Tacinelli’s very first conversation was about caponata, the Sicilian dish of chopped, fried eggplants and vegetables. The connection, they said, was instant.)
The main thing the couple agrees on is that a true eggplant Parmesan, especially the Italian American version, takes some effort. But that doesn’t mean it has to take forever.
Understanding what makes an eggplant Parm an eggplant Parm can help home cooks streamline or iterate — and, ultimately, make it more of a staple.
For Amanda Shulman, a chef in Philadelphia, the dish is defined by her mother, who would bring it home from the local deli and reheat slices between bread in a panini press. These sandwiches were, she said, like eggplant Parm Hot Pockets.
Later, when Ms. Shulman lived and cooked in Bergamo, in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, her colleagues would bring in their grandmothers’ versions of eggplant Parm, which in the old country is generally made without breading.
“Everybody’s grandmother had a melanzane,” she said.
Today, at her restaurant Her Place Supper Club, Ms. Shulman presses fried Japanese eggplant slices into a loaf pan with tomato-butter sauce and cheese — “terrine style,” she described it — before baking and chilling it. For service, she reheats slices of the loaf, “like a cake,” in a hot oven until crispy on the bottom. You can eat it warm or straight from the fridge, she said, “like pizza or cold lasagna.”
That’s how Mr. Tacinelli also remembers eating it. “It’s almost better as leftovers,” he said. But his nonnegotiable? The eggplant slices “need to be thin and breaded,” so they can soak up the olive oil. Too thick, and the eggplant will stay spongy even after a long bake.
Ms. Rito recalls her childhood Parm as a layered room-temperature casserole, sliced from the deli case of her grandfather’s Sicilian bakery, Rito’s, in Cleveland. Dried oregano and fresh basil, Ms. Rito said, lent “a very specifically Italian American flavor.”
Both Mr. Tacinelli and Ms. Rito agree on pecorino and Parmesan, twin flames of Italian American cooking — and that eggplant Parm just isn’t meant to be crispy.
In fact, the expectation of crispiness betrays what makes the dish uniquely itself: a tender, almost gooey, fork-yielding slice of work, like a lasagna with homemade noodles. (But should the top layer of cheese get nice and toasty in the casserole’s final bake, then so be it.)
This recipe streamlines the process so the cooking can feel relaxing on a Sunday afternoon. Long planks of panko-breaded eggplant crisp up gloriously in the oven, which means none of the traditional frying. Another benefit of roasting is the fruit’s concentrated earthy, smoky flavor, which makes this version the apotheosis of aubergine.
Store-bought jarred marinara sauce works beautifully here, but it’s up to you; homemade can lend its own character.
You should make your eggplant Parm the way you like it — and most important, in a way that works with your life. Eat it fresh out of the oven, or from the fridge a day later. There’s nothing like pulling an individual portion out of the freezer to make you feel rich in time.
And isn’t time itself the most coveted thing?
“My grandma would cook for seven hours a day, just to prepare a meal for her and my grandpa,” Ms. Rito said. “She was the best cook I’ve ever met in my life, because she put in the time.”