I've searched for great eggplant Parmigiana with the diligence of Percival and the appetite of Diamond Jim Brady.
All of which leads me to the city of Parma in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. If you're going to seek anything Parmigiana, it's the right place to go. Besides, there's all that prosciutto and mortadella, tortellini and tortelloni along the way.
The industrial-strength, mozzarella-laden Parmigianas that define the stuff between the East River and the Montauk lighthouse, and generally between the East and West coasts, are just topics of curiosity so near the source. Parmigiano-Reggiano is the cheese that stands alone.
To confess, Parmesan has been my favorite cheese since childhood, grating avalanches of it from chunks taken off black-wax rimmed wheels. The Gianotti house wasn't a mozzarella-free zone, but Parmesan was the big cheese. (It still is, two generations later. Thanks Nonna, thanks Mom.) That was the cheese on the eggplant.
But in decades of dining out, the mainstay was and is mozzarella, sometimes creamy and tangy, sometimes with the texture of a refrigerator magnet and the flavor of plastic.
So, last week I was eating at the Trattoria del Tribunale, at Vicolo Politi, 5, a side street in the "centro storico" of Parma, where after some antipasti that included pieces of Pamigiano-Reggiano and a sampler of local salumi, gnocchi with Gorgonzola, and tagliatelle with meat sauce, I encountered "Parmigiana di Melanzane."
Cooked through, almost sweetly-sauced in light red, and capped with a shower of grated Parmesan, it's a worth-the-journey dish. And it's a reminder of what can be lost in transit, in translation, in what's available at the time.
What's best about the dish is the absence of bitterness, chewiness, elastic cheese and burnt edges that define too many renditions around here. I'll enjoy a mozzarella-laden number as much as anyone. But it's hard to find one that's not undermined by the other problems.
Chronicles of Parmigiana continues, but lately, with a good taste in the mouth.
Now, about ham ...