a favorite summer eggplant recipe
The words for this post have been in my head for weeks, jumbled together, a mental Rubik’s cube, trying to get them in the correct order to solve the puzzle of my memory. The answer to fitting them together occurred to me yesterday, so I got in the car and drove 100 miles down to Astoria, Queens where the story of caponata began for me.
Mikey lived in Astoria when we met 27 years ago. Back then one of his favorite places was an Italian shop called FGA on Broadway, just off 34th Street. Those of you with me for a while now, know about my beloved Caputo’s in Carroll Gardens. FGA was his Astoria version of Caputo’s, a small family-run business, specializing in imported meats, goods and homemade southern Italian foods run by a husband and wife from Italy.
One of Mikey’s favorite dishes from FGA was their caponata, a Sicilian eggplant dish. Sharing a recipe for caponata is likely to cause controversy amongst Italians, the recipe itself varying the same as sauce or gravy. Every family has their own way of making it, and every family’s version is of course the best. Except mine.
I grew up in an Italian American family with a group of somewhat fussy eaters. While most of them liked pine nuts, olives and raisins on their own, mixing them together in a dish was never going to happen. And, capers? They were a hard no in my family. How could they lay claim to Sicilian roots and not like caponata is an answer that evades me to this day, but it is the reason I’d never eaten caponata until Mikey introduced me to it.
FGA closed years ago, and what I cook now is a memory of those flavors imprinted long ago. Still, I felt compelled to make the trip to Astoria because I needed to know what replaced FGA. I stared at the street view of Google maps for a while, and then started questioning my own memories. I’d been convinced of its exact location but what if this was just another trick of my memory’s gaps in time and space?
Two hours and seventeen minutes after pulling out of my driveway in Olivebridge I’d found a shady parking spot under a tree on 36th Street and 31st Avenue in Astoria, Queens. Knowing FGA was closed, I stopped at the other Italian deli nearby, one that has been there just as long but that we never went to back in the day. I ordered a Silician salami sandwich “dry”–no lettuce, tomato or condiments, and almost immediately devoured half of it, not realizing how hungry I’d been.
And then the moment of truth. I found myself standing at the corner of 34th Street and Broadway where Uncle George’s used to be, a well-known but also now gone Greek restaurant that Michael loved. FGA used to be next door–or was it two stores down. This was the part I couldn’t remember, and what led me to drive all the way there in the first place.
It was going to be one of two places, the first being a restaurant and the other being an Asian market. I went into the market first and chatted with the young guy at the counter, asking how long they’d been there and if he remembered an Italian deli called FGA. Nope. He’d been there five years and the only one he knew of was the deli two blocks down where I’d gotten my sandwich.
I stood outside the market, now staring at the restaurant’s awning next door. It couldn’t be possible that this was FGA, and yet it had to be. I’d come this far–could I possibly leave without a concrete answer? The restaurant’s front windows were opened up completely, leaving no barrier between me and an answer except the courage to talk to an older gentleman sitting on the chair by the bussing station.
In a shy, soft spoken voice, which some of you may find hard to imagine, I asked if he remembered a store called FGA and where it used to be located. His face lit up, and in an excited Greek-accented voice he said “it was here, a long time ago, the couple retired about 20 years ago…so much has changed here now”. I shared the story with him of why I was there, and how fateful that the location of my beloved FGA was now a place called Michael’s Restaurant. We were both smiling at the way life brought us together in that moment, validating our memories in a sense. In a world before Covid I imagine being strangers wouldn’t have stopped us from hugging before saying goodbye but we both settled for kind smiles, and I wished him a peaceful rest of his day.
My worries about feeling sad when I embarked on my trip to Astoria were replaced by peace and calm, even joy in a way. I walked a few blocks further down and stopped into Parisi Bakery for some butter cookies studded with rainbow nonpareils. Then I looped back in the direction of Michael’s old apartment, passing the driveway where he used to rent a parking spot from the owner for his little red Toyota Celica. The laundromat where he did his laundry has new signage, and probably new owners, but is still there. Kaufman Astoria Studios, where he used to work, is also still an anchor in the neighborhood.
When I was ready to leave Astoria, I thought about zipping over to Rego Park for empanadas and maybe a walk around Flushing-Meadows Park but realized something. I don’t need to hold all the memories together all the time. It’s okay to sort them into necessary piles, revisiting only the ones needed at the moment. Yesterday was about caponata, nothing else. Empanadas could wait for another day. I drove home along the Taconic feeling whole in a way that’s been elusive more and more lately.
A few words about my caponata. Remember what I said about versions varying family to family? Make this version if it’s your first time, then tweak it as you see fit for your own taste buds. Some things are non-negotiable, like having sweet and sour elements to create the agrodolce (sweet and sour) balance. Raisins usually add the sweetness, but if you’re raisin-averse, you could add some sugar to balance out the vinegar. Olives and capers are traditional but I don’t always have capers in the fridge, so feel free to use both or just one, but really you don’t want to skip them completely.
Unless you have a nut allergy, be sure to include those, too, since they add a nice texture to a relatively soft dish. The only olives I had when I made the version in these photos were almond-stuffed, so I skipped the pine nuts, meaning if you don’t have pine nuts, then almonds are fine to use, too.
Lastly, caponata is usually made on the stovetop. I much prefer this sheet pan, oven roasted version. It’s pretty easy and hands off, and can be made while multitasking other chores, or during the workday, which is how I get a jump on dinner between zoom calls during the week. Caponata is usually served as an appetizer but I break the rules and serve it tossed with hot pasta. You can even serve it as a room temperature pasta salad. The only rules in your own kitchen are the ones you make. Hope the weekend has been a gentle one, filled with some pockets of peace.. Remember to be kind. –xo, j.
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