Once upon a time in Palermo : Caponata

In his chapter on Sicily in The Food of Italy, Waverly Root quoted Sicilian writer and scholar Gaetano Falzone: “He who has not eaten a caponatina of eggplant has never reached the antechamber of the terrestrial paradise.”

Last fall, I found myself in Palermo, Falzone’s hometown, tasting caponata for the first time. That feels like a lifetime ago.

When I stumbled on Falzone’s quote last week, it reeked of hyperbole. But then I remembered feeling swept away by the simplicity of that dish, and it did not seem so far-fetched to imply a dish’s other-worldly powers.

There were other aspects of that dinner, however, that were less paradisaical. It reminded me that at the table we meet each person in the middle of their own melodrama. Sometimes those convergences are seamless. Other times, less so. And, on rare occasions, they’re truly bizarre.

*

I’d landed in Palermo at dusk. On its descent into the cratered island, the plane was greeted by an incredible sunset of purples, yellows, and oranges hanging low and heavy on the horizon.

On the drive into town, I scribbled furiously in my notebook while the taxi driver rattled off a list of classic Palermitano dishes I had to try. He dropped me off a couple blocks from our AirBnB, pointing vaguely in the direction of a giant church.

“It’s somewhere behind that church,” he said, shrugging his shoulders before driving off.

Eventually, I found it and knocked on the giant iron door. Sarah opened it. Her eyes were swollen and puffy.

“Hi,” she said. “Come on in.”

She’d arrived earlier that afternoon and was fighting with her partner, who was an ocean away. She didn’t want to talk about it.

“Let’s just find somewhere to eat first,” she said, her thin shoulders slumped over her narrow frame in defeat.

We ambled down the pedestrian-only promenade and found Ferro di Cavalo nestled in the middle of a short, one-block side street paved with uneven stones. It had a small patio enclosed with a black iron fence. The façade was adorned with ivy. It stood next to a car wash.

There was a line, so we sidled up to the wooden bar lining the exterior of the patio where someone had left a pitcher of ice water and a stack of plastic glasses. Sarah poured two glasses and we leaned against the exterior wall of the car wash, reviewing the menu, our best effort to distract ourselves from the toiling ghost of hunger

*

“Sarah per due?”

The host, who had a cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth, led us through a narrow glass doorway into the dining room. The air was hot and sticky with the smell of fried olive oil. I caught the scent of freshly squeezed lemon blooming over a fillet of grilled seabass and made a mental note to order fish.

A rowdy crew of Sicilians in the back corner of the restaurant yelled obscenities at each other as they poured liberally from large glass wine carafes. Family photos and hand-painted drawings lined the walls. There were horseshoes nailed into every wall in homage to the restaurant’s name.

We dropped into two high-backed wooden chairs across from each other and exhaled audibly.

“I’m so happy to be here with you,” Sarah said, reaching across the table for my hand.

My body settled into my chair, and without thinking, I reached to touch my heart. Finding an old friend in a new place. Communing over the sacred space of a wobbly wooden dinner table. It was a familiar ritual and one I never tired of.

I unraveled my napkin and waited for her to begin. It was clear she needed to unload some burden, and there seemed no better place to put it than at this table.

“So, we talked for a while. It ended on a good note, I think. I’ve thought about it, and I think I was wrong, but my intentions were in the right place –”

I tried to listen to Sarah but was distracted by the young woman being led to our table. The woman’s round, brown eyes nervously scanned my face for recognition. I stared back at her blankly.

She slid into the empty chair between me and Sarah without saying a word. The host handed her a menu and walked away.

“Hello,” I said to the as-yet-unidentified woman seated at our table.

Sarah’s back was to the entrance. She hadn’t seen her approaching. She stared at the woman, her mouth agape.

“I’m Brianna,” I said.

“Pid.”

“I’m sorry?”

“My name is Pid.”

“Oh. I see. How do you spell that?”

“P. I. D.” She seemed annoyed, as if the spelling of her name were common knowledge.

“What a lovely name. It’s nice to meet you, Pid.”

By now, Sarah had closed her mouth and smiled in Pid’s direction.

“Hi Pid. I’m Sarah.”

I rearranged my legs under the table to accommodate our new guest.

“So, Pid. What brings you to Palermo?” I asked.

“My husband’s here for work.”

“How cool. Is he Italian?”

“Yes.”

“And where do you live?”

“London.”

“Is that where you’re from?”

“No.”

“Oh. Where are you from?”

“Thailand.”

“Nice. I’ve never been to Thailand, but I have traveled to London. What a cool city. Sarah just came from there.”

Pid didn’t look up from her menu.

“Is your husband meeting you here?” I asked.

“No. He’s sick. I left him at the hotel.”

During the course of our ad-hoc dinner for three, she only spoke if we asked her a question, and even then, her responses were curt. Her silence left a gaping hole that I filled with questions in my head. Where did she and her husband meet? Under what circumstances? Was theirs a marriage of love or convenience? Did he even exist?

Pid reached to grab the waiter’s arm as he passed our table.

“Prendo la frittura di pesce.” Although her English with tinged with an accent, she spoke Italian flawlessly, which suggested her ill Italian husband did in fact exist.

The waiter circled back a short while later and placed a large white plate in front of Pid piled high with fried calamari, prawns, and smelt. Sarah and I had yet to order.

Pid attacked her meal as if she’d been wandering in the woods for days surviving solely off pine needles. She tore off the tails of the prawns with her teeth, sucking greedily on the heads before discarding them on the paper place mat. Her brazenness caught me off guard. Up until then, she had presented as mild and restrained. The striking paradox intensified my curiosity.

I was so occupied with mentally filling in the holes in Pid’s story that I’d forgotten I was hungry until the waiter dropped our plate of caponata between me and Sarah. I drove a wedge of bread into the mound of amalgamated celery, onion, eggplant, tomato and devoured it.

Waverly Root argues that the dish’s genius lies in carefully cooking each element individually, thus synthesizing the individual flavors into one unified taste. As I ate, I could clearly taste each piece: the creaminess from the eggplant, the soft salinity of the celery, the sweetness of the sauteed onion, the gentle acidity from the tomatoes. It melted in my mouth almost as literally as ice cream, just a Root described.

I looked up from my plate, searching for Pid’s approval. She averted my eyes and instead wiped her mouth, took a sip of water, and disappeared. Sarah and I blinked at each other and spent the rest of our evening wondering what on earth had just happened.

*

Caponata is arguably Sicily’s most characteristic dish and is much beloved. In Catania, where the dish originated, they call it caponatina, a maternal diminutive. Unsurprisingly, there are as many variations as there are cooks. Eggplant is the one constant.

Caponata is traditionally served as a side dish at room temperature. It makes a sensational filling for a vegetarian sandwich. If you want to make this dish vegetarian, simply omit the colatura.


Caponata

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

  • ¼ C olive oil
  • 2 eggplants, striped, cut in medium dice
  • 6 ribs of celery, backside peeled, sliced on a bias
  • 1 large red onion, sliced in thin petals
  • 3T capers, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 2 pounds fresh tomatoes, cut in chunks
  • 2T colatura di alici
  • Salt and pepper
  • ¼ C red wine vinegar
  • 3T granulated sugar
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • ¼ cup Castelvetrano or Frescatrano olives, torn
  • Handful of basil, torn

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium mixing bowl, generously salt the eggplant. Lay it out on a sheet tray elevated on a baking tray to let the eggplant purge some of its liquid. Leave for 30 minutes as you prep the rest of the vegetables.

In a medium-sized sauce pot, heat ¼ cup olive oil to shimmering. Blot the eggplant with a paper towel to dry off, then carefully add to the oil. Fry on all sides until evenly brown, turning as needed. You will need to fry in two, maybe three batches, depending on the surface area of your pot. Scoop the eggplant out and strain on the same baking rack.

Check the pan – you should still have a thin layer of olive oil left over. Remove or add oil as needed. Heat the oil to shimmering and add the celery, red onion, and capers. Sweat until glossy, about 5 minutes. Season with a large pinch of salt. Add the garlic cloves and sauté another minute.

In a 13X9 inch baking dish, add the eggplant, then add the sauteed celery mixture. Then add tomatoes with their juices, colatura, a couple big pinches of salt, a couple grinds of pepper, the vinegar, and the sugar.

Roast for 1 hour, stirring periodically to avoid charring the sides.

Once the mixture looks good and jammy, remove from the oven and taste for salt and acid. Add a little more if it needs some piz-zaz. Fold in the basil and olives.