Saturday, February 22, 2014

Saturday lunch with penne pasta and a tomato, basil, eggplant and mozzarella sauce

Last evening, Shirley asked me to cook pasta with a simple sauce for lunch because daughter Stephanie and her two kids and daughter Tricia's two kids would be with us today. I decided to make one of my favorite sauces but one quite frankly, I don't make often enough.

I don't recall that spaghetti was on my family's table very often growing up in Southwestern Michigan. It wasn't until the early 80's when we were living near Washington DC that I remember eating pastas in a restaurant that were so good they made lasting impressions on me.

The pastas I am referring to are "Capellini D'Angelo Napolitan," angel hair pasta with tomato, garlic and fresh basil and "Penne Sorrentina," pasta with tomatoes, basil, eggplant and mozzarella. The restaurant was Tragara Ristorante in downtown Bethesda, Maryland.

I remember prices at Tragara's were high, service was haughty, but the pasta was so good. In those days, servers finished dishes tableside in copper saute pans on chef carts before spooning them onto your plate. And they used fresh basil and San Marzano tomatoes which was not yet common.

I had not been to Tragara's for many years and now they are closed. After watching granddaughter Avery, age 7 eat pasta with relish today, I am sharing my version of "Penne Sorrentina" with you. My recipe is inspired by Tragara's and influenced by recipes from Biba Caggiano and Lidia Bastianich, two of my favorite Italian cookbook authors.

My "mise en place" for penne pasta with tomatoes, basil, eggplant and mozzarella

Penne pasta with tomatoes, basil, eggplant and mozzarella
Makes 4-6 servings


1 firm medium eggplant, trimmed, peeled, and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices crosswise.
5 cups tomato sauce (recipe follows).
2 Tablespoons julienned fresh basil.
1 pound penne pasta.
6 ounces mozzarella cheese, cut into small dice about the size of an olive.


Preheat the oven to 400 Fahrenheit

1. Place the eggplant slices on a baking sheet. Brush both sides with olive oil. Bake until golden on both sides. Cool slightly, then cut the slices into 1/2-inch pieces. Set aside.

2. When the tomato sauce is finished, add the eggplant and fresh basil to the skillet with the tomato sauce and cook for one to two minutes.

3. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add 1 Tablespoon of salt and pasta. Cook, uncovered over high heat until the pasta is tender but still firm to the bite, al dente.

4. Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet with the sauce. Stir in the mozzarella and mix everything over low heat until the mozzarella begins to melt and is completely blended with the pasta and sauce, about 2 minute. Serve at once.

Tomato Sauce
Makes 6 cups


2 28-ounce cans San Marzano tomatoes.
1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons olive oil.
1 small yellow onion, finely diced.
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped.
Pinch of dried red pepper flakes.
Salt and pepper.


1. Heat two Tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook, stirring until the onion is pale yellow and soft.

2. Clear a spot in the pan and add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring, until the garlic begins to color, less than 1 minute.

3. Add the tomatoes and remaining olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, over medium-high heat for 10 minutes. Cool.

4. In a blender, blend the cooked tomato mixture in small batches to a puree. Return 5 cups of tomato sauce to the skillet. Transfer the remaining sauce to a container and keep for another use.


When you blend your tomato mixture, make sure you put the lid on the blender and hold it down with a towel as the residual heat will cause the mixture to rise and can blow the lid off if you overfill or don't hold down the lid. It can make a mess of the kitchen. I know from experience.

My version of penne pasta with tomatoes, basil, eggplant and mozzarella

As I said above, fresh basil and San Marzano tomatoes were not commonly used or easily found ingredients in the early 80s in the US. Certainly not at the large grocery chains. So every time, we wanted to prepare this dish or angel hair pasta with tomato, garlic and fresh basil, we would make a trip to Sutton Place Gourmet, now owned by Balducci's.

This pasta sauce is liked by young and old. Now you can find fresh basil and San Marzano tomatoes in almost every supermarket. It is well suited to this blog about Provence as all of the ingredients are featured in many Provencal dishes. I hope you will try it. If you do, let me know what you think.

Bon Appétit. Have a great week. Chat soon.


  1. Hello Michel, This is the kind of recipe I like. Simple to prepare and with fresh and healthy ingredients. Must save the recipe for later in the year when my eggplants are producing. I know that Marzano tomatoes are special. I wonder if my own tomato sauce would work as well.

    1. Gina - I hope you try the recipe. I am sure your own tomato sauce will work very well. Enjoy.

  2. That looks scrumptious Michel! I always enjoy your recipe posts :)

  3. Hey thanks so much. I am glad you like them. I will be doing more of them this year and I will think about you when I do them.