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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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06.09.08

An Ode to Eggplant Parmesan (and where to find some damn good versions in Chicago)

Bites: News and Miscellany


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When Jesus and his apostles broke bread at their ceremonial “Last Supper,” I notice that there was one course blatantly missing: eggplant Parmesan. I’m admittedly not a food historian of ancient Israel, nor am I well-versed on the availability of produce in biblical times, but I do know that this cheesy, gooey, and fried casserole of Italian deliciousness is heavenly.

When the time comes to toast my own last meal, you can be sure it won’t skimpy on the eggplant. A steaming bed of spaghetti, buttery garlic bread, a full shaker of grated Parmesan for extra sprinkling; this is the supporting cast for what makes up the greatest eggplant Parmesan dinner a kitchen can muster. If I at least go down with a full stomach and a satisfied palate, it will have been one fine last supper.

My love for this lip-smacking dish began several years ago as I tiptoed around the idea of vegetarianism. My family would frequent our nearby pizza joint every couple of weeks on a Friday night for our fix of all things Italian. Up until my boy-meets-eggplant introduction, I was more of a cheese steak devotee. When I suggested to my mom, the designated “pizza retriever,” that I wanted to try an eggplant Parmesan sandwich, she scoffed at my interest in such rabbit food.

Thankfully I did not heed her, and it was on one such Friday night that I first fell under the spell of a future favorite food. As I hungrily devoured every last bite of my mammoth-sized sandwich, I thought to myself, “where have you been all my life?” Layers of deep-fried eggplant rounds, herb-laden marinara sauce, and an oozing blend of mozzarella and Parmesan stack up to make one dang fine gustatory delight. From then on, when it was time to peruse a new menu or swing by the same ol’ pizza shop, it was “good-bye” to cheese steaks and lasagna, and “hello” to eggplant Parmesan.

While the will for a vegetarian diet didn’t stick, my obsession for this, the king of “Parmigianas,” has remained solidly constant. Chicken and veal be damned; they’ve got nothing on eggplant when it comes to cooking in the cheese. I’d rather sink my teeth into a casserole of fried, baked, and sauced veggies than a plate of greasy baby cow any day. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my fair share of eggplant misfires from time to time. Not every trattoria, enoteca, and ristorante is made the same; not every one is going to live up to my best of Parmesan memories.

Having grown up near Boston’s North End, a spitting image of an Italian villa, I know what makes the plate and what hits the spot. The makings of a good eggplant parm begin several hours before the kitchen work actually begins, with the pre-slicing and salting of the eggplant. Giving the eggplant a brief salting extracts the excess water and bitterness. When the water drains, the remaining air bubbles collapse, resulting in a firm and fry-ready slice that won’t absorb grease and become chewy with oil. Next step is on to the fryer. Let’s stress the word fry here, because under no circumstances should the eggplant be baked. The eggplant slices, after being properly dredged in flour, egg wash, and breadcrumb coating, need to sizzle in hot oil to cook properly. This assures quick and even cooking throughout the eggplant. Baking would only cook the very exterior, whilst the interiors remain rather raw. Having fried the eggplant into crispy perfection, an honest-to-goodness eggplant parm now gets the layering treatment a la lasagna in a wide casserole dish. Following these steps results in a sure-fire eggplant parm that’ll enliven the taste buds and leave you asking, “where has this been all my life?”

At this point, you’ll undoubtedly be skimming the phone book for some eggplant offerings. Fortunately, Chicago’s got enough Parmesan goodness to rival the best of Italia- or Boston’s North End for that matter. To experience a true labor of love, head over to Rose Angelis (1314 W. Wrightwood) for “Melanzane alla Parmigiana.” The secret to eggplant greatness, according to chef/owner Lawrence Rosenblum, is to take great pain in utilizing the freshest ingredients via a two-day preparation process. “First, we slice the fresh eggplant thin and salt it to extract the bitterness, which takes 12-24 hours. Then it is seasoned and lightly sautéed in extra virgin olive oil,” says Rosenblum, describing with pride his culinary masterpiece. He doesn’t stop there however, going on to assure that “our mozzarella cheese is made fresh on premise daily, as is our marinara sauce. Together, these components are assembled and baked to order.” House-made mozzarella? Extra virgin olive oil? Fresh assembly and baking? Put me down for a reservation.

Another favorite of mine for a taste of professionally-cooked parm comes courtesy of Adesso (3332 N. Broadway). This swanky neo-Italian joint gets points for beautifying an already beautiful plate of food. The presentation of delicate eggplant rounds resting atop a nest of ‘ghetti is as nice to gawk at in it’s serving bowl as it is to dig into. You can relax knowing that the recipe used here comes from good hands: a 97 year-old woman who passed her know-how along for three generations. Dr. David Jones, the owner of Adesso, is proud to carry on the matriarchal tradition, and boy does the flavor show. The kitchen earns extra accolades for upping the herbage with pleasant notes of rosemary and thyme, making for a dish of fresh-from-the-garden flavor.

Of course, eggplant parm is not just knife-and-fork food for the weekend dinner crowd. It can just as easily be ordered for take out as more of a stuff-your-face-while-nobody’s-around food. My pick for parm that’ll travel well and sweep your taste buds off their feet can be found in a precious strip mall dining room. La Gondola (2914 N. Ashland) may not look too special from the outside, but don’t let the words “strip” and “mall” fool you. One step through the curtained doorway and you’ll feel right at home with the plush Italian countryside décor. Since 1984, La Gondola’s been cranking out the pizzas, the pastas, and the parms. The velvet-laced dining rooms only got a handful of tables, however, so take out may be the best option. Time after reliable time, I’ve sated my cravings for quickie parmesans. The “famous” house eggplant Parmigiana is large and in charge. Three layers of thick-cut eggplant get piled and buried amid Romano and mozzarella cheese, marinara, and mostaccioli pasta. Swing by on Wednesdays, when this feast is offered on special for a measly $10. The sandwich version’s even a few bucks cheaper, but it is no less hearty. Swapping Italian bread for pasta, this football-sized sub could put a dent in the appetite of a small family. La Gondola’s also brewing some eggplant innovation in the form of their “Monte Carlo.” It’s the same as traditional Parmesan, except wildly different. The marinara is replaced with a white wine sauce, while sautéed mushrooms, artichokes, and broccoli give the dish extra oomph.

In case you were wondering whether or not I’ve met a parm that topped my eye-opening epiphany several years back, the answer is an avid “yes.” If you’re looking for an eggplant revelation of your own, Chicago is the right place to be. Can’t afford those pricey plane tickets to Parma, Italy? With the mouth-watering creations working at some of my favorite restaurants, you’ll be getting the next best thing. Many an evening, as I hit up my beloved ristorantes for a plate of parm, I ponder the great abyss that is the afterlife. More importantly, I wonder whether eggplant Parmesan exists in heaven. It would comfort me to know that on the other side, I could dine on my favorite food, with Jesus and my nana as tablemates. In the meantime, I can sup on the splendor of Parmesan done right, whether it be at home or on the town.

3 Comments on "An Ode to Eggplant Parmesan (and where to find some damn good versions in Chicago)"

Michael Morowitz

My favorite, by far, is at Bruna’s on 24th and Oakley.



ab

thanks for the recs…

I also love the Eggplant Parm at Club Lago off Orleans.



Ryan

I just went to rose angeli’s 2 days ago, after reading this article, and can verify that this recommendation is on point. the eggplant parmesean was great.

they did not serve pasta with the eggplant, but it didn’t matter because they provide half of a tray of this stuff. the portion was huge.



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