As a child visiting family in Sicily, Guiseppe Cataldo and his pals would come in from playing, sweaty and hungry, begging for a snack.
“A grandmother or aunt would pull a container out of the refrigerator, scoop something onto a plate, cut some fresh bread, and tell you ‘There you go, eat this,’” recalled Cataldo, owner of Serena Gastropub and Serena Cucina. “You didn’t know what you were eating, but it was so good.”
In those containers was caponata, a versatile vegetable medley that now has a prime spot on Serena’s appetizer menu. Eggplant, zucchini, squash, tomatoes and olives marry in a hearty dip that is delicious spread on toasted bread as an appetizer, or spooned over quinoa as a quick lunch.
“You can toss it in pasta; you can top a steak with it,” said Cataldo. “Think of it as a whole meal and a condiment at the same time.”
One of the restaurant’s biggest sellers, the dish is still made the same way those Sicilian grandmothers made it. Vegetables are cut in large rustic pieces, tomatoes are crushed by hand, and herbs are torn, not cut. A splash of vinegar ups the acidity of the dish, adding a pleasing tang and enabling the caponata to keep up to three weeks in the refrigerator, says Cataldo.
“It’s one of those dishes you can eat any time of day, even if you’re hungry at three in the morning,” he said. “It’s the perfect superfood.”
Cataldo grew up in the restaurant business; his father owned a Sicilian eatery in Endicott, N.Y., the birthplace of IBM. When the computer giant came to North Carolina, bringing many from Endicott, the transplanted New Yorkers pestered the elder Cataldo to open a restaurant in Cary. Seven years ago, the younger Cataldo relocated to the Triangle, opening Serena Gastropub in 2010 and Serena Cucina in North Raleigh three years ago.
Cataldo is pleased to be in Cary, making caponata and anticipating the birth of his first child.
“This area is incredible, the quality of life, the amount of intelligent people that really care about a good lifestyle, a healthy lifestyle, a normal lifestyle,” he said. “I couldn’t think of a better place to live and raise a family.”
5311 South Miami Blvd., Suite A, Durham
Serves 6 to 8
1 large eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 yellow onion, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
5 whole olives, pitted and diced (Cataldo uses a mix of black and green olives)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon sugar
5 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 plum tomatoes, peeled and crushed by hand
1 cup fresh basil, torn into small pieces
½ cup fresh mint, torn into small pieces
1 zucchini, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 yellow squash, cut into 1-inch cubes
Oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
Lightly salt the eggplant and put in a strainer; set aside for 30 minutes. Heat sauté pan over medium heat, add oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Cook onions and celery until soft and onions are translucent; add garlic and olives. Sauté for 30 seconds, or until garlic gives off a nutty aroma; add the tomato paste. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes; add sugar and vinegar. Cook for 3 more minutes. Place in medium bowl and add tomatoes, basil and mint. Set aside.
Rinse eggplant to remove salt. Heat oil in a large skillet; add eggplant, zucchini and squash and cook until soft. Add eggplant mixture to tomato mixture and mix thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Wrap the mixture well with plastic wrap; allow to cool for 30 minutes at room temperature.