This is an all-time favorite Corleone Family recipe, one that we’ve held dear to us ever since I first came over to America from Sicily. Ah, who can ever forget that trip across the Atlantic. So many faces, so many voices, all looking for a new beginning and prosperity in the new world. We were leaving our homeland in pursuit of the American Dream, a dream as rich and complex as my sautéed eggplant.
When I make this recipe, it conjures up so many images. But my favorite is of my family gathered around a dinner table. Sonny, young and rambunctious, playfully boxing the air with his fists. Fredo, not far removed from the naked baby that was wailing on my dinner table, trying to make his way in the world. Connie, and whatever good-for-nothing dragged himself to dinner with her. Tom, who I always thought of as a son—maybe more so than I did with Fredo at times, if I’m being honest. Looking back, it seems as if the seeds of what would come to pass with our family were encapsulated on that day. Vengeance may not bring Sonny back to me, but the ricotta salata sure comes close.
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Now, every time I bite into a dried chili in this dish, I’m taken back to that table, or maybe even before that (it’s funny how time can fold in on itself, flashing back from the present to the past and back again). Just one bite of acidic tomato cascading over the pasta and I’m on Mulberry Street, listening to Vito, Tessio, and Clemenza plot Don Fanucci’s murder. How piquant, like sprinkling of fresh basil over a warm bowl of pasta.
Personally, I like to spice up this dish with orange zest. Oh how the men in my family love their oranges. Some say they represent mortal danger, but to me, I like to think of my husband’s face as he wandered through the markets in Little Italy, narrowly surviving an assassination attempt, or playing with his grandchild in the shade of his garden, always with an orange close at hand. And I must say, my son does his best revenge-murder work while chewing on an orange.
Maybe it’s the tomatoes, as plump and troublingly ripe as Apollonia Vitelli, that bring me back to my little home town of Fiumefreddo di Sicilia and the sea at Catania. Some people say that, as we became increasingly Americanized and my family embraced all that Nevada represents, we gradually lost our connection to our Italian culture and values. But this oregano-fueled course says otherwise.
This recipe is great for large events, like weddings and first communions!
Another special ingredient for me is my husband’s Genco Pura Olive Oil. To this day, I’m so proud of how he built such a thriving small business in the cutthroat world of the import/export industry. And I just loved going back to Sicily and enjoying quality family time there as we took in the sights and supported Vito as he avenged the deaths of his father, brother, and mother in one sharp, shockingly extensive swipe of a knife.
For the adventurous, consider adding some guanciale into the mix—just like my good friend Luca Brasi, it adds a fatty and flavorful element to the mix. Or, in honor of Frankie Pentageli (may he rest in peace), you can splash the whole mixture with a dash of fine red wine.
So, here’s the recipe:
1 ½ pounds eggplant
Genco Pura Olive Oil as needed (at least 1/2 cup)
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon chopped garlic (use a shaving razor to finely chop)
3 or 4 dried chiles
1 ½ pounds tomatoes, chopped
1 teaspoon good dried oregano, or 1 tablespoon fresh
1 pound long pasta
½ cup chopped parsley or basil
½ cup grated ricotta salata (or in a pinch, pecorino Romano)
1 orange (for zesting)
Slice the eggplant about 1/2 inch thick. Cook in abundant olive oil, without crowding, sprinkling with salt and adding more oil as needed. Cook until the eggplant is nicely browned and soft. I know when it’s done after I’ve repeated the names of my enemies five times: Sollozzo, Tattaglia, Barzini, Roth, etc. Remove to a plate; do not drain on paper towels. Meanwhile, put a large pot of water to boil and salt it.
After cooking the eggplant, the pan will ideally have a couple of tablespoons of oil left. If there’s more or less, drain some off or add a bit—your husband should be able to give you a seemingly endless supply. Turn the heat to medium, add the garlic and chiles, and cook until the garlic colors a bit. Add the tomatoes and oregano, along with some salt and pepper (shout “Carmela Corleone says hello” while you do it); cook until saucy but not too dry, stirring occasionally.
Cook the pasta until tender but not mushy. While it’s cooking, cut the eggplant into strips and reheat for a minute in the tomato sauce. Drain the pasta and, bada bing, toss it with the tomato sauce and the eggplant. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then top with the parsley and/or basil, orange zest, and grated cheese, and serve.