“The funny thing about eggplant is that the people who love it, really love it.” So says Tony DiSilvestro, owner of Ynot Pizza, a three-unit operation based in Virginia Beach, Virginia. From Ynot Pizza’s eggplant specialty pizza, eggplant rollatini and of course, eggplant Parmesan –– menued in both entrée and hot sub form –– DiSilvestro sells a good amount of eggplant. While he admits all of his eggplant items sell well, nothing compares to the eggplant Parmesan. The $9.99 entrée is built by topping thin slices of breaded and fried skin-on eggplant with housemade marinara sauce and mozzarella.
It has an estimated food cost of 19 percent. It should come as no surprise that eggplant Parmesan continues to reign over vegetarian menu items. After all, diners would be hard-pressed, and most likely disappointed, to not find this comfort food classic on menus. Originating from Southern Italy, eggplant Parmesan traditionally calls for either fried or breaded and fried thin slices of eggplant blanketed in marinara and mozzarella that is then baked until the cheese melts and browns. The dish provides a win-win for operators and diners. Operators like its ease to prepare and low food cost (eggplant provides 100-percent yield), while diners enjoy its comfort-food factor.
Just because a menu item is a classic doesn’t mean it isn’t due for an update. Some operators execute the dish with a more modern approach. For example, instead of breading and deep-frying eggplant, Silvio Medoro, owner of Silvio’s Organic Pizza in Ann Arbor, Michigan, seasons eggplant slices with oregano, rosemary, salt and pepper and grills it. Then he layers three to four rows of eggplant in a baking dish between housemade tomato sauce and a mixture of eggs, romano, mozzarella and Parmesan. This bakes in a 500 F oven for one hour and sells for $12.50. “We try to be healthier, and our diners appreciate it,” says Medoro, who incorporates organic ingredients such as olive oil, fl our, herbs, vegetables, eggs and mozzarella into all of his dishes.
It’s not an option to remove the eggplant Parmesan ($10.50) from the menu of the New Berlin, New York based, New York Pizzeria, says Frank Baio, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife Betsey. The dish runs a 200-percent profit margin.
To prepare, Baio cuts round slices of eggplant a half-inch thick. Then he salts it and lets it sit a minimum of 40 minutes. Salting is the most important step when working with eggplant, says Baio, since it removes the eggplant’s bitterness.
He rinses the eggplant in cold water, pats it dry and dips it into a batter of heavy cream and eggs, then dredges it in toasted house-made breadcrumbs. He fries the eggplant in extra-virgin olive oil, then places it in a baking dish where it is topped with house-made marinara and mozzarella. After baking, it arrives with a side of pasta. Baio estimates the dish’s food cost is 30 percent, with eggplant costing $20 to $25 a case.
Baio further capitalized on his eggplant Parmesan’s success by introducing two eggplant dishes. Eggplant rollatini with spaghetti showcases lengthwise slices of fried eggplant wrapped around sweet ricotta cheese and spaghetti. While vacationing in Sicily for his mother’s 80th birthday, Baio was inspired by a dish his sister, Rosa, prepared. The Zia Rosa Eggplant resulted. It displays layers of eggplant, tomato sauce, breadcrumbs, toasted pine nuts, raisins and Italian Provolone. Baio plans to add this special to the menu permanently in the spring. “All of our eggplant dishes are pretty good sellers,” he says. “It’s because diners are into healthy food. Many customers reason that even though the eggplant is fried, it’s still somewhat healthy.”
The biggest challenge to preparing eggplant Parmesan and other eggplant dishes isn’t the technique, but the eggplant. Before beginning any eggplant dish, check to ensure that the eggplant is not bruised, scratched or discolored. “Make sure the eggplant is hard on the it, use your judgment. If you see brown seeds inside, it’s not worth using,” Baio says. Bigger does not always mean better. Baio recommends choosing medium-sized eggplants. Remember eggplant becomes bitter with age, so use quickly. DiSilvestro alleviates his eggplant consistency issues by purchasing frozen, sliced and breaded, skin-on eggplant. “Without a doubt, going with a frozen product is a huge labor and time saver,” he says. “The frozen product works well. It is sliced nice and thin. Sometimes when you make the product fresh, the breading comes off. This product’s breading never comes off.” Another reason why operators enjoy serving eggplant Parmesan, in all its incarnations: it gives diners more choices. “It’s nice to have variety of vegetarian items on the menu,” DiSilvestro says. ?
Yield: 6 servings
1 large eggplant, about 1½ pounds
Salt, as needed
2 eggs, beaten
1½ cups fine, dry bread crumbs mixed with ½ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
8 ounces tomato sauce
1 teaspoon dried leaf basil
½ teaspoon dried leaf oregano, crumbled
16 ounces sliced mozzarella cheese
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Wash eggplant and cut crosswise into ½-inch thick slices. Salt eggplant and let sit for 40 minutes. Rinse eggplant in cold water and pat dry.
Dip eggplant into beaten eggs then dredge with seasoned breadcrumbs.
Place slices on a plate and chill for 30 to 45 minutes.
Heat about 1⁄8-inch of oil in a heavy skillet. Fry eggplant on both sides until golden brown and crispy. Drain well on paper towels.
In a saucepan, heat tomato sauce, basil and oregano. Spread 1⁄3 of the sauce in a greased 12 x 8 x 2-inch baking dish. Layer half of the eggplant, half of the mozzarella, another 1⁄3 of the sauce, and half the Parmesan. Repeat layers. Bake at 350 F for 30 minutes, or until hot and bubbly.
Melanie Wolkoff Wachsman is a freelance writer in Louisville, Kentucky. She covers food, business and liefestyle trends.