Quartieri Spagnoli Aubergine Parmigiana (Melanzane alla Parmigiana)

Deep in the heart of of the Quartieri Spagnoli – the Spanish Quarter – in the centre of Naples sits a tiny family-run restaurant called Hosteria Toledo. It’s one of our favourites and our go-to place when we arrive in (and leave) this glorious chaotic city. The family are justifiably proud of their long-held faith in the sumptuous beauty of home-style Neapolitan cuisine which they describe thus on their crisp brown paper menu: ‘A plate of maccheroni, four or five panzarotti, a piece of carciofo, a portion of zucchini alla scapece passed on to us by Mamma Sosora, these dishes main (sic) aromas come from such garlic, chilli pepper, basil leaves and olive oil. They bring back memories of family life and they impress images of traditions by far no longer in use, but always fascinating and rich in emotions‘. As we sit at one of their rustic tables listening to the darkly beautiful waitresses share news and secrets, we observe the delivery men come and go, we see beautifully groomed men checking in on the evening’s takings and handsome boys running up to the other restaurants that line the narrow, laundry-draped streets with dishes taken from the main kitchen. It’s romantic, loving, rustic and a tiny bit crazy. To us, it is home. I will always choose a generous portion of their deeply rich melanzane alla parmigiana but I take a lot of inspiration from their deeply humble menu.

Melanzane alla Parmigiana

1.5kg large aubergines
Sea salt
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped
x2 400g tins good quality plum tomatoes (my go-to brand is Mutti)
150ml good quality red wine
Pinch of sugar
1 tsp dried wild oregano
Vegetable oil, for frying
x2 125g mozzarella, thinly sliced
125g Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated (plus extra for garnishing)
50g fresh sourdough breadcrumbs
A generous handful of basil leaves, for garnishing

How I make it

Cut the aubergines lengthways into 5mm slices, sprinkle with salt and leave in a colander to drain for around half an hour.

Meanwhile, add the olive oil to a large frying pan and heat. Add the garlic and stir around for a minute. Then tip in the tomatoes and the wine. Bring to the boil and turn down the heat. Add the sugar and oregano and season to your taste. Allow the sauce to slowly blip away for half an hour, stirring occasionally. Treat it with love and season again remembering that the Neapolitans have a penchant for salt.

Heat an oven to 180C.

Thoroughly rinse the salted aubergines and pat them dry before cooking them two ways:

  • Add half of them to a steamer and allow them to gently steam for 15-20 minutes, until soft
  • In the frying pan, add enough vegetable oil to cover the base and gently fry the remaining aubergine slices until they’re golden on both sides. Place them on a plate covered with kitchen roll to absorb any excess oil

Lightly grease a large casserole dish and spread a little tomato sauce on the base. Then add a single layer of steamed and fried aubergine, a generous scattering of mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano, a few basil leaves and season with salt and pepper. A lightness of touch is required here so that the final dish is soft and yielding. Repeat this process in exactly the same way until all the ingredients have been used (this recipe yields enough for four layers) finishing with a layer of the tomato sauce.

Toss the breadcrumbs in a splash of olive oil and the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano and sprinkle on top. Lightly drizzle with olive oil. Bake for around 30 minutes until everything is bubbly and golden. Remove from the oven and set aside to settle down.

Place the dish on a board at the centre of your table, sprinkle with torn basil leaves and invite everyone to dig in. Eat it like we do in Naples with a side of zucchini alla scapece and a bowl of salty olive oil fries.


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