By Letizia Mattiacci
ight hundred and twenty-five kilometers is about 500 miles. That's always been a vast distance in Italy, all the more so in the 1960s, when the country didn't rank first in Europe among cars per citizen and its road system was rough and tumble.
Every August during my childhood we traveled those interminable kilometers from my hometown of Perugia to Villa San Giovanni in Calabria, headed for Sicily. The first few years there was no highway south of Naples, which put our tiny Fiat 500 through the paces on windy roads. It was an epic mountain trip whose details I luckily don't recall well.
Once in Calabria, we'd board the Sicily-bound ferry. My mother was from Messina and her mood changed the instant her feet touched her native island. She was happy. All was delicious. Minutes after landing, we'd all be biting into cannoli.
Sicily is as much in my heart as my beloved Umbria.
My earliest memory, besides the adventurous trip south, is the impossible pink of bougainvillea on Sicily's whitewashed houses. That and the ever-present fragrance of fried eggplant, tomato and basil announcing another luminous lunch.
We'd come back from the beach in the scorching sun, barefooted, hatless, and without sunscreen. We knew nothing of ozone and its layers.
Our mother always left the beach early to cook up mounds of spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce piled high in delicious fried eggplant slices and sprinkles of aged ricotta. To me, it was the best meal in the world.
And so it is that in the middle of this white-hot summer I still feel the need to fry some eggplants. I use them to make a proper eggplant parmigiana which I known will fill the house with that unmistakable and familiar aroma of eggplant, tomato and basil.
Afterwards, I think the heat must have gotten to my head. How could I have fried and used the oven in this temperature?
Still, I love the celebration the meal suggests, and so does my family. When I bring it to the table my husband and daughter are already brandishing their forks, toasted crusty bread ready in their plates.
Mother unto family, they also think it's the best meal in the world.
— Peel and cut eggplants lengthwise into 1 cm (1/2 inch) slices. Sprinkle slices with salt and place in a colander with a weight on top for at least one hour. Pat them dry and deep fry in vegetable oil until golden. Place them back in a colander for a few hours or possibly overnight to get read of excess oil.
— Heat one tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil in a pan; add the onion, cover and sauté over low heat until translucent. Stir in the tinned tomato and a sprig of basil, cover again and cook for approx. 10 min. Season lightly with salt and black pepper.
— Preheat oven at 180C/350F.
— Build up the parmigiana: spread two tablespoons of the sauce on the bottom of an ovenproof pan. Cover with a single layer of eggplant slices. Top with mozzarella, 2-3 basil leaves, 1 tablespoon of Parmesan and 2-3 tablespoons of sauce. Continue using all ingredients and finish with a layer of eggplant, sauce and Parmesan. Bake for 30 minutes until golden and bubbly.
Let it cool off for at least 10 minutes before serving, but it's best at room temperature — unless of course your room is located directly under the Umbrian sun.
The author's Sicilian mother worked to prove her dignity in a time when most Italian women stayed at home.
Italy's best oranges come from Sicily, and until recently the northward trek was rare.
For those who can't stand big-store Christmas shopping, try the artisanal alternative — and then make cookies.
Even when things aren’t going your way (never mind Umbrian sunsets) there are always pumpkins.
When Google the Dog gets a whiff of figs, there's no more peace in the hills of Umbria.
More In Provincia