CHEF’S DISH: Parmigiana is a little taste of Italian home

Ester Celia in the wine bar at VeroGusto
Ester Celia in the wine bar at VeroGusto

City-centre Italian restaurant VeroGusto may be celebrating two-and-a-half successful years in its smart Norfolk Row premises, but owners Ester Celia and Saverio 
Bruno have bigger celebrations at home…

The couple’s second child, Vittoria, arrived earlier this year, but Ester was back in the kitchen just a week later, albeit with a reduction in opening hours.

It’s this dedicated approach that has helped the pair succeed. And they certainly haven’t forgotten their roots or the journey they’ve taken to get where they are now.

Starting out in a small gelato in Naples, washing and preparing fruit for the ice cream, Ester made the decision to leave her home city at an early age. With a train ticket in her pocket and a keen ambition to make something of herself, she headed to the Austrian borders to work in a hotel kitchen as a pot washer. It wasn’t long before she climbed the ranks, getting her first chef’s post and then landing herself a job at The Ritz, just outside Venice.

“I sent my CV to another hotel, but they forwarded it on to The Ritz without telling me!” she says. The lucky break proved even more fortunate, for it was here that she met her partner Saverio.

The couple moved to London soon after, then to Sheffield where they opened Gusto Italiano, on Church Street.

“It was a difficult time for us in the beginning,” says Ester. “We wanted to keep the quality high, so we spent all our money on the food and at first couldn’t afford any staff. There was just Saverio front of house and I was alone in the kitchen.

“As we were a new business, a lot of suppliers wouldn’t give us credit, so we had to make trips to the wholesalers ourselves every morning. One time I came across these beautiful skinny aubergines, so I bought two kilos. I dusted off an old family recipe and made a large melanzane parmigiana. Everyone loved it, and it soon became a favourite on the menu.

“My top tips for making this dish are to use dry mozzarella, not the balls stored in milky water, as they’re too wet and they can make the dish sloppy. Also use the skinny aubergines if you can get them – the fat ones tend to have pips in them. Finally, unlike some recipes, I only use two layers of tomato sauce, one at the bottom and one at the top.

“This dish takes me back to those early days in Gusto Italiano,” says Ester. “We’ve come a long way since then, and if it wasn’t for our customers we wouldn’t be here.

“I’d like to thank the people of Sheffield for all their support over the years. I’m grateful to every single one of them that has walked through our doors. Grazie mille.”

Recipe:

Ingredients (serves 4)

extra virgin olive oil

2 shallots, finely sliced

9-10 ripe tomatoes (on the vine), finely chopped

pinch of salt

small bunch of basil, chopped

8 skinny aubergines, sliced lengthwise, about half a centimetre thick

plain flour for dusting

300g dry mozzarella, sliced

125g Parmesan, finely grated

bunch of fresh oregano, finely chopped

olive oil for deep frying

Method

Heat a little extra virgin olive oil in a pan. Once hot, add the shallots and fry gently until golden.

Add the tomatoes and once they start to sizzle add a little water. Season with salt and cook for 20 minutes, until the mixture starts to dry a little.

Stir in a small handful of basil and leave to cool.

When cool, blend until smooth and finally pass through a sieve to achieve a creamy texture. Set to one side.

Take the aubergine slices and lightly dust them with an even covering of plain flour. Shake off the excess.

Heat a couple of inches of olive oil in a high-sided pan or pot until hot. Deep-fry the aubergine slices, in batches, for a minute or so on each side and drain on a plate lined with kitchen paper to get rid of excess oil.

Line a square dish (about 23cm) with the first layer of the tomato sauce. Start building the dish with layers of fried aubergine, mozzarella and a sprinkling of Parmesan, oregano and basil – and repeat until all the ingredients are used up.

Make sure the dish is level and push down with your hands to pack the layers in tightly. Then smear over the second layer of tomato sauce, not too much or you will make the dish sloppy.

Top with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and bake in a preheated oven at 190°C for 20 minutes.

To serve:

Allow the dish to cool for 5 minutes or so, then serve with chunk of crusty bread and a large glass of Italian red wine.

Also very good served cold. Buon appetito!