Baskets of lightly toasted bread slices and little mustard-yellow terra-cotta bowls filled with caponatina (a finely chopped version of the Sicilian sweet-and-sour eggplant dish caponata) often appear on the tables at Il Bacco Felice soon after guests are seated. Salvatore Denaro insists on making his caponatina with exquisite salted capers from Malfa on the Sicilian island of Salina.
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In a small bowl, cover the capers with warm water and let stand for 1 hour. Drain well. Meanwhile, partially peel the eggplant, leaving vertical stripes. Chop the striped eggplant into 1-inch dice.
In a large skillet, heat 1 inch of vegetable oil to 350°. Add one-fourth of the eggplant at a time and fry over moderately high heat until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Drain on paper towels.
Discard the vegetable oil and wipe out the pan. In the same saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add the sliced onions and bay leaves and cook over moderately low heat until the onions are softened but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add the capers, celery, tomatoes, olives and pine nuts and simmer, stirring a few times, until the vegetables are heated through, about 5 minutes.
In a small saucepan, dissolve the sugar in the vinegar over moderate heat. Stir the vinegar mixture into the vegetables with the reserved eggplant. Transfer to a serving bowl. Season the caponatina with salt and black pepper, and let cool to room temperature.
The caponatina can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Salt-packed capers from Salina are available in the U.S. through the importer Manicaretti at Market Hall Foods (888-952-4005 or markethallfoods.com).
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