Chef Gabriele Bertaccini has become a household name following the success of his smash-hit Netflix show “Say I Do,” in which he crafts real-life weddings with Jeremiah Brent and Thai Nguyen in less than a week.
In a recent interview, the chef shared the recipe for his Nonna’s eggplant parmigiana with Salon Food. His love of food and his childhood in Tuscany are intertwined. Here Chef Gabe explains it, in his own words:
I was, I think, very fortunate that my child playground was a place like Tuscany — and Italy, more generally. It’s a country of amazing foods with one of the most important culinary heritages in the world, and a country where we are very deeply connected to the food that we cook and the food we eat. I always say that if you want to understand something about Italians, you may want to join them at the dinner table. When I take people to meet some of my friends, I tell them all the time — it’s the first thing — we’re going to go for dinner. We’re going to sit down, we are going to bring a couple of friends and we’re going to spend two or three hours. And then usually, three hours into dinner, my friends are like, “Oh, I get it. I understand here what’s going on.” You start understanding more and more about us.
I personally grew up in a beautiful place in the countryside of Tuscany called Chianti, which is one of the most amazing wine regions in the world. And I was extremely fortunate and lucky to be able to open up my door and have eggs that were still warm from the chickens in the morning, and go and pick out the vegetables with my grandmother and then take all of that back into the kitchen and create some amazing magic with my grandmother and my mother.
I always say I wasn’t attached to the outcome of things. I was attached to the process. It made me understand that the process — the cooking and food in general — it’s really not so much about the final dish you get at the dinner table. It’s really about what happened before. It is about where the food comes from. It’s about the connection you have with the animal that you might be cooking and eating at the dinner table. It is about where these ingredients come from. It is about the process of it. What I fell in love — I fell in love with that. I fell in love with the process of it.
So really, all my childhood memories are connected to food. Whether it’s smells, whether it’s cooking, whether it’s sounds, but they are all connected to the kitchen. It was a very beautiful childhood. It was a childhood that gave me some amazing moments to look back to — and it clearly inspired me to do this for others, as well.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Recipe: Chef Gabe’s Nonna’s Eggplant Parmigiana
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 head of garlic, cloves crushed
- 1 large red onion, chopped
- 3 oil-packed anchovy fillets (optional)
- ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- ¼ cup dry white wine
- 2 28-ounce cans whole peeled tomatoes
- ¼ cup torn basil leaves
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- Kosher salt
Eggplant and Assembly
- 4 pounds Italian eggplants (about 4 medium), peeled, sliced lengthwise ½–¾ inch thick
- Kosher salt
- 3 cups panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
- 1½ teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1½ cups finely grated Parmesan, divided
- 1½ cups all-purpose flour
- 5 large eggs, beaten to blend
- 1⅓ cups olive oil
- ½ cup finely chopped basil and parsley, plus basil leaves for serving
- 6 ounces low-moisture mozzarella, grated (about 1⅓ cups)
- 8 ounces fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
1. Preheat oven to 350°. Heat oil in a large heavy ovenproof pot over medium. Cook garlic, stirring often, until golden, about 4 minutes. Add onion, anchovies (if using), and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring often, until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and cook, stirring often, until slightly darkened, about 2 minutes. Add wine, bring to a boil, and cook until almost completely evaporated, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes, breaking up with your hands, and their juices; add basil and oregano and stir to combine. Swirl 1½ cups water into one tomato can, then the other, to rinse, and add to pot; season with salt. Transfer pot to oven; roast sauce, stirring halfway through, until thick and tomatoes are browned on top and around edges of pot, 2–2½ hours.
2. Let sauce cool slightly. Pass through the large holes of a food mill or process in a food processor until mostly smooth. Taste and season with salt.
Do Ahead: Sauce can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and chill.
Eggplant and Assembly
1. Lightly season eggplant slices all over with salt; place in a single layer on several layers of paper towels inside a rimmed baking sheet. Top with another layer of paper towels and more slices; repeat as needed. Top with a final layer of paper towels, then another rimmed baking sheet; weigh down with a heavy pot. Let eggplant sit until it has released excess liquid, 45–60 minutes. This step gives the eggplant a creamy texture when baked.
2. Meanwhile, pulse panko, oregano, pepper, and ¾ cup Parmesan in a food processor until very finely ground. Transfer to a shallow bowl.
3. Preheat oven to 350°. Place flour in another shallow bowl and eggs in a third shallow bowl. Working one at a time, dredge eggplant slices in flour, then dip in egg, allowing excess to drip off. Coat in breadcrumbs, packing all around, then shaking off excess. Place on wire racks.
4. Heat ⅔ cup oil in a large skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high. Cook as many eggplant slices as will comfortably fit in pan, turning once, until deep golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer to paper towels and immediately press with more paper towel to absorb oil. Working in batches, repeat with remaining slices, adding remaining ⅔ cup oil and wiping out skillet as needed. Let cool. Taste and season with more salt if needed.
5. Toss chopped herbs, low-moisture mozzarella, and remaining ¾ cup Parmesan in a medium bowl. Spread 1 cup sauce over the bottom of a 13×9″ baking pan; top with a layer of eggplant slices (trim as needed). Drizzle 1 cup sauce over and sprinkle with one-third of cheese mixture. Add another layer of eggplant, followed by 1 cup sauce and half of remaining cheese mixture. Repeat layers with remaining slices, sauce, and cheese mixture. Cover with foil and bake on a rimmed baking sheet until eggplant is custardy, 45–60 minutes.
6. Remove from oven and arrange fresh mozzarella over eggplant. Increase oven temperature to 425° and bake, uncovered, until cheese is bubbling and browned in spots, 15–20 minutes longer. Let rest 30 minutes. Top with basil leaves just before slicing.
Do Ahead: Eggplant Parmesan can be made 2 days ahead. Let cool; cover with foil and chill. Reheat in a 350° oven, uncovering halfway through, until bubbling gently at edges.