The nonnas from both sides are visiting their newly married granddaughter’s house for the first time. The bride has to entertain the elders by preparing a first-rate dinner for them.
The bride is an acomplished hostess: friends love her cooking, enjoy her hospitality, and always eagerly look forward to visiting. But the nonnas are not her friends; they are her evaluators.
The appraisal begins as soon as they are about to sit down to cocktails. The nonnas make no effort to see if the hostess notices as each swipes a hand across the seat of a chair, then rubs her hands together to rid them of dust — real or imaginary. They sit down. The party begins.
The nonnas dig in to beautifully arranged platters of prosciutto, provolone, figs, olives, and melon. They launch into chorus mode. One nonna has the opening salvo, “Too stringy this prosciutto; it sticks in my teeth.” Another says, “These olives are very salty.” But the platters are emptying fast, when a nonna pipes up. “The figs are nice,” she says biting into her fourth — or maybe her fifth. “But I’m not supposed to eat seeds, didn’t you know?” she asks, accusingly.
Saved by the oven bell, the hostess asks the guests to come to the table. They do, and the seat-dusting ritual is repeated. Conversation at the table is about– what else? Food. Which market sells the best ricotta salata? Why is the price of broccoli rabe so high? And do you know some people don’t fry meatballs before they put them in the gravy? (That last statement always raises eyebrows.)
Portions of eggplant parmigiano appear on each plate. A nonna raises her glass in a toast: “Cent’anni.” And that is the last word spoken for a very long time. A silence descends when they bring the first forkful of glistening cheese-enrobed eggplant to their lips. The silence is, well, frightening. Is the eggplant not too stringy, too salty, or home to too many seeds? Maybe it isn’t. As they use chunks of bread to shovel the vegetable on to their forks and to absorb the rich sauce, they seem to have no need to talk. Sigh. They ask for seconds, they reach into the bread basket again, and are in a miasma of contentment.
When the salad is passed around, the spell is broken. “This isn’t the salad like your mother used to make,” one nonna says. “Wrong kind of vinegar.” And the nonna who has trouble digesting seeds pushes the salad’s scallions to the edge of her plate, all the while shaking her head. “You really don’t have to use this expensive oil in a salad,” another says.
It’s soon time for espresso, anisette, and cookies. The guests find the coffee “a little bitter.” The anisette? “Galliano, not Sambuca?” they ask, shocked. And the cookies, they grudgingly deem, “pretty good.”
Coats balanced on one shoulder, they ready themselves to leave, bestowing kisses and hugs and even a mini-blessing on the hostess. The golden silence during the eggplant episode proves the party was a success. They cannot tell the hostess, though, how delicious the dish was. (No compliments here!) But they will all tell their neighbors. Each will say, “She makes parmigiana pretty good–just the way I make it.”
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
- 5 Small Japanese or zebra eggplant, about 1 1/2 pounds total
- 2 Eggs
- 2 Tablespoons flour
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 to 1 cup olive oil, not extra-virgin
- 2 cloves garlic, quartered
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 1/2 cups tomato sauce (homemade or store-bought)
- 4 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
- 1 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/4-inch slices
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees
- Wash eggplant well. Using a peeler, strip off some of the skin leaving a striped effect. Cut eggplant, crosswise into 1/4-inch slices.
- In a large bowl, beat eggs, flour, salt, and pepper together, forming a batter.
- Stir eggplant slices into batter.
- Preheat a large skillet over high heat. When skillet is hot, add enough olive oil just to cover the bottom of the skillet.
- Reduce heat to medium. Saute eggplant, without crowding, in batches until golden, adding more oil as needed.
- In the meantime, in a nonreactive pan, saute garlic in the additional 2 tablespoons of oil; sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. When garlic is golden, add tomato sauce.
- Let sauce simmer about 10 minutes. Stir in fresh basil leaves.
- In a nonreactive 8 x 12-inch pan, layer the ingredients. Begin with a few tablespoons of tomato sauce, top with slices of eggplant, then slices of mozzarella. Repeat layering ending with a layer of mozzarella.
- Sprinkle sauce on top.
- Bake 35 to 45 minutes or until bubbly and golden. Wait 20 minutes before serving.