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Who Has the Best Eggplant Parmigiana?

In this week's food fight we compare eggplant parmigiana from three West County restaurants.

Eggplant parmigiana or melanzane alla parmigiana, as they say in Italy, is a Southern Italian dish made with a sliced, pan-fried eggplant, layered with tomato sauce and cheese, then baked. The original parmigiana was made with eggplant, and later variations made with meat came about. Other cooking methods have the eggplant dipped in flour, egg and breading before frying.

Some attribute the name parmigiana to the use of Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan cheese). Others believe it is from the Parma region of northern Italy (which is what Parmigiana usually means). However, eggplant parmigiana is believed to have originated in Sicily, especially because of the region's abundant use of tomato and eggplant. Still another theory exists. Clifford A Wright (Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000) reports that it may be an incorrect take on an Italian word that morphed into parmigiana. His website states "Authors Mary Taylor Simeti, Vincent Schiavelli, and several others...suggest that the name has nothing to do with Parmigiano cheese or Parma the city, but derives from the Sicilian palmigiana not parmigiana, meaning 'shutters,' the louvered panes of shutters or palm-thatched roofs that the layered eggplant slices are meant to resemble. These are speculative suggestions not supported by the evidence."

Gianfabio's Italian Café 127 Hilltown Village Ctr., Chesterfield

The simple setting and somewhat dated café side of Gianfabio's does not allude to the garden fresh and homemade food served in the restaurant. The Sicilian owners use herbs they cultivate behind the restaurant in their cooking. The eggplant parmigiana was savory and well balanced. The eggplant was flash fried, reducing the amount of oil absorbed. It was also made without breading, making for a lighter, fresher dish. However, the method used to cook the eggplant made the unbreaded edges papery and crispy, which was an unpleasant contrast to the almost creamy center. The flavor of the marinara sauce had the edge of fresh tomatoes with restrained sweetness and was finished with herbs and proper seasoning. The cheese topping had a nice texture as well.

The good: It was an excellent dish. The center of the eggplant was soft and sweet, and the sauce and cheese rounded out the flavor of the dish.

The bad: The edges of the eggplant were papery.

Candicci's 100 Holloway Rd., Ballwin

Candicci's is more of an Old World restaurant. The décor is more formal, despite the informal items on the menu (wraps and sandwiches—which are not particularly Italian). The service was also a little slow, and despite showing interest in a glass of wine, the server needed to be prompted to bring a wine list. The eggplant parmigiana was beautifully presented. Instead of slicing the eggplant in 1/4-inch thick slices, it was sliced in approximately 1-inch thick slices. The center was creamy, but oily when sliced. The bubbly cheese was texturally pleasing. However, the sauce in the dish lacked seasoning, seemed like puree from a can, and was so sweet it made the dish unappealing.

The good: Excellent plate presentation—it was a beautiful looking dish.

The bad: The sauce was too sweet and lacked that fresh tomato, tangy quality. The eggplant was oily.

The Pasta House 14007 Manchester Rd., Manchester

The Pasta House in Manchester is pristine and modern with bottles of wine decorating each table. The manager and servers provided friendly and attentive service. The eggplant parmigiana was breaded and topped with a chunky tomato sauce and cheese. The breading was eggy and took away from the flavor of the dish. The sauce was good—sautéed onions and herbs were visible. The cheese had a nice texture as well. The parmigiana could have used a little more salt and pepper, otherwise it was a good dish. The parmigiana was served with pasta shells on the side as well as a salad to start. I think I might have preferred a larger portion of eggplant and no pasta.
 
The good: The service, ambiance and cleanliness of the restaurant were great.

The bad: The breading took away from the overall flavor. More seasoning would have boosted the flavors in the dish as well.

The winner: Gianfabio's Italian Café wins for its superb, well-rounded flavor.

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