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 this glorious chaotic city. The family are justifiably proud of their long-held faith in the generous 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 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 everything on their deeply personal menu.
1.5kg large aubergines
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped
x2 400g tins good quality chopped tomatoes, polpa
150ml good quality red wine
Pinch of sugar
A couple of handfuls of basil leaves, plus extra for garnishing
Parmigiano-Reggiano rind (optional)
x2 125g mozzarella, roughly chopped
125g Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated (plus extra for garnishing)
50g fresh sourdough breadcrumbs
Sea salt flakes and freshly ground mixed peppercorns
How I make it
Traditionally, Italian cooks fry their aubergine slices but I prefer to roast them for a lighter touch.
Heat an oven to 220C and line a large baking tray with baking parchment.
Cut the aubergines into 1.5cm rounds and place them on the tray. Drizzle with olive oil and season generously. Roast for 30 minutes until they are golden brown and cooked through. Remove from the oven and set aside.
Meanwhile, heat a large frying pan over a medium heat, add a generous glug of olive oil and add the garlic. Stir around for a minute or two and then tip in the tomatoes and the wine. Bring to the boil and then turn down the heat. Add the sugar, half the basil leaves and the Parmigiano-Reggiano rind if using (I keep them in the freezer to add an umami kick to soups, sauces and risottos). Allow the sauce to quietly blip away for half an hour, stirring occasionally. Taste, treat it with love and season to perfection.
Reduce the oven to 180C.
Lightly oil a large casserole dish and spread a little tomato sauce on the base. Then add a single layer of the roasted aubergine, a generous scattering of mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano and a few basil leaves. 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 finishing off with a layer of the tomato sauce.
Mix the breadcrumbs with a glug of olive oil and the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano. Sprinkle across top. Lightly drizzle with olive oil and bake for around 30 minutes until everything is bubbly and golden. Remove from the oven and set aside to rest for a few minutes before serving.
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.