I love Italian restaurants. But it's getting hard for me to keep straight which dish each one does best. My memory problem isn't helped by the fact that so many of the chains have deceptively similar names: The Pasta House; The Macaroni Grill; The Old Spaghetti Factory - each of which competes with Olive Garden - to say nothing of The Noodle Company, which isn't in direct competition with any of them. My head spins.
Today, on my way home from Arkansas, I stopped for lunch at a Pasta House in Farmington, Missouri. And although I remembered having a really lousy eggplant parmigiano off one of the above, confusingly-named chains, but couldn't remember which one, I went with my gut instinct and gave the eggplant dish a shot. I held my breath a bit, though, realizing that there were at least four other reasonably-priced dishes on the lunch menu I would prefer over the crumbly disk of over-fried breading (containing no detectable traces of eggplant) that I regretted having the last time.
Well, I'm happy to say that whichever establishment served me that crumbling disk of parmagiano senza eggplant, it apparently wasn't a Pasta House. (I'm now about 62.7% certain that it was a Macaroni Grill in Brentwood.) For one thing, Pasta House doesn't do dish-shaped slices of eggplant. Their eggplants are sliced lengthwise, into roughly rectangular slabs about a quarter-inch thick, interestingly with the peel left on. Very lightly battered, they are cooked enough to give the crust a touch of crispiness without completely dissolving the vegetable. The flavors were exquisite - eggplant, breading, sauce and seasonings, and the trace of cheese on top, all blended to an ideal balance so that no one element overpowered the others. I loved it.
The lunch portion came with two slices of the above, plus a choice of pasta with red sauce or white sauce. I went with the red sauce and got a nice helping of shells so beautifully cooked that I didn't know whether to say "al dente" or "Alleluia." The meal also included fresh-baked rolls with butter and/or margarine (so clearly, Pasta House is not the one where they make you dip your bread in seasoned olive oil), and a choice of soup or salad.
I chose soup and got a further choice of minestrone or Italian wedding soup, which I had never heard of. I don't know why it's called Italian wedding soup any more than I know why those little ball-shaped cookies coated in powdered sugar are called Mexican wedding cake. Perhaps the soup and the cookies are customarily served at Italian and Mexican weddings, respectively. I wouldn't know. But if you're planning an Italian wedding in St. Louis and you plan to serve soup at it, please invite me. This stuff was good. It combined spinach, carrots, celery, and small balls of mildly seasoned sausage in a savory chicken broth. It also had some little noodles in it, shaped somewhat like the ceramic beads that teenaged space-cadets string around their ankles these days. If I had known what I was getting, I would have ordered a bottomless bowl of the stuff and stayed with that for the duration. At least that's what I was telling myself until the eggplant arrived.