A couple of months ago, I was lucky enough to have a seven-hour delay between flights from Rome to Catania, Sicily. After spending a few hours unsuccessfully trying to get on an earlier flight, I gave up. I stored my luggage and bought a ticket for the Leonardo Express, the 32-minute train into Rome.
Ironically, it was an undercover cop named Leonardo who sparked my affair with Italy more than 20 years ago.
He picked me up from the train station in Florence with opera blaring and the windows rolled down in his small black car; a Polo or something like that. He’d stand over the Bialetti coffee maker in the mornings with the lid open, watching the final bits bubble to the top while he smoked his first of many cigarettes of the day. He had long and wavy hair, always pulled back into a ponytail. He wore a broken-in black leather jacket and jeans most of the time. He looked more criminal than cop.
His mother taught me how to make tiramisu without a recipe. He introduced me to ravioli di spinaci with a simple brown butter sauce. Our first date was over pizza, with vin santo and cantuccini, the small Italian almond biscotti, for dessert. He spoke not a word of English. I didn’t speak any Italian – not then.
Our romance didn’t last long, but Italy I’ve never stopped loving.
As the train pulled into Rome, I knew exactly what I was going to do. I walked as far away as I could from the train station, found a small trattoria, sat down, and ordered a pizza Margherita – because pizza is always a good idea.
Two Pizzettas: Eggplant and kalamata olive + Roasted potato, goat cheese and pesto
This is a great do-ahead recipe. You can roast the vegetables and make the sauce and dough ahead of time, then simply heat through when you’re ready to eat.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- a handful fresh basil leaves, torn into smallish pieces
- 1 (14.5-ounce) can San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 eggplant, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons + 2 tablespoons olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 pound Yukon gold potatoes, sliced in flat pieces
- 1/2 recipe homemade pizza dough, crusts precooked
- 6 kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
- ½ ball fresh mozzarella
- a handful arugula
- 2 tablespoons pesto
- 3 tablespoons goat cheese
- Make the tomato sauce. Put the olive oil and basil leaves in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. When you can smell the basil, add the tomatoes, sugar and salt and pepper to taste. Let cook until it bubbles and reduces slightly, about 20 minutes. Let cool, then purée in your blender or with a stick blender.
- Roast your eggplant. Preheat the oven to Broil and lay the eggplant slices on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush the 2 tablespoons olive oil on both sides of the slices, and lightly salt and pepper one side. Slide into the oven and bake for 15 minutes or until lightly browned, then turn to the other side and cook for another 10 minutes or so. Let cool. Note: You can do this in advance and keep the roasted eggplant in the fridge.
- Roast the potatoes. Preheat your oven to 450°F and put the potato slices on a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Drizzle them the other 2 tablespoons of olive oil and lightly salt and pepper. Slide into the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until browned on the bottom. Flip them over and cook for 10 more minutes, or until also lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let cool. You can also do this step a day in advance and keep the potatoes in the fridge until you’re ready to make the pizzettas.
- When it’s pizza time, preheat the oven to Broil. Get out your two precooked crusts, and on one: spoon a couple of tablespoonfuls of the homemade tomato sauce, a few slices of eggplant, the chopped Kalamata olives, and tear off some pieces of mozzarella and scatter this around. On the second crust, spread the pesto around the crust, then top with the cooked potato slices (as many that you can fit), and the goat cheese. Slide both into the oven at the same time — on a rack quite close to the heat — and cook until the cheese has melted, about 5 to 10 minutes. Serve the eggplant pizzetta with a handful of arugula on top. Serve the pesto-potato pizzetta as is. Slice and eat.