One of the things I like best about where we live is the plethora of neighborhood restaurants. At the end of our block you’ll find Japanese, two Italian, Chinese, Korean BBQ, Thai, two pubs, Indian and Rock ‘n Rose (not sure how to describe this last one, but their tagline is “food, passion, glamour”). No chains; all local, mostly family-run, unique places.
But our favorite is Cafe Mamma, one of the Italian restaurants. Every time we walk in the door we’re greeted by a kiss on the cheek and a hearty “ciao” and made to feel like family. The food is traditional Italian – like eating in mamma’s kitchen.
We’ve been regulars for nearly four years and yet I only tried their eggplant ricotta penne for the first time last week. My daughter ordered it and it looked so good I snatched some off her plate (bad manners, I know). It was delicious! I was annoyed that I only discovered this dish now.
Plus we are moving back to the US in four months. There will no longer be a Cafe Mamma at our corner…sniff, sniff. I need to bring a little of it back with me (won’t be the first time…at Christmas I brought back limoncello I made at the restaurant with Jose, the owner). So I set about re-creating the lovely eggplant ricotta pasta from last week. Now I don’t think I got it as good as Cafe Mamma, but it’ll stand in when this favorite restaurant is no longer just down the block.
Eggplant Ricotta Penne Pasta (serves 6)
Note: This is a nice, simple weeknight kind of pasta dish. The eggplant and ricotta, quite mild flavors, are given a bit of oomph with the parmesan and basil. However if you want to punch up the flavor even more, feel free to add olives or capers.
1 pound (450 grams) penne or rigatoni pasta
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds (900 grams) eggplant, peeled and cut into 3/4″ cubes
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
28 ounces (800 grams) canned/tinned chopped tomatoes, undrained
1/2 cup (10 grams) chopped fresh basil, separated
1 cup (250 grams) ricotta
Freshly grated parmesan
Cook penne pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water until al dente (or however you prefer your pasta cooked), then drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a 12″ nonstick skillet over high heat until just smoking. Add the eggplant and 1/2 teaspoon salt (skillet will be quite full, but it will cook down) and cook until lightly browned and softened, about 15 minutes, gently stirring every few minutes or so.
Stir in the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Stir in the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and cook until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
In a large serving bowl, combine the cooked penne, eggplant/tomato sauce and half of the basil. Add the ricotta in spoonfuls and gently stir, so that ricotta is incorporated slightly but there are still “blobs” of it visible. Serve topped with the remaining fresh basil and grated parmesan.
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook