Caponata is an Italian appetizer that’s bursting with flavor! Eggplant and Mediterranean vegetables make a tangy, garlicky spread that’s perfect over crusty bread.
Here’s a new appetizer that we’re head over heels with: caponata! What’s caponata, you ask? This Sicilian specialty is an appetizer and a side dish, essentially a sweet and sour ratatouille with cooked eggplant, tomatoes and onion. It’s often spread on crusty bread as an appetizer or antipasti (as the Italians would say). It’s so full of tangy, garlicky flavor that once you’ve taken one bite, you’ll likely want to devour the entire serving dish. So hold onto your hats! Here’s how to make Italian caponata…and then how to serve it like the Italians do.
What’s in caponata?
Caponata is a classic Italian eggplant dish. And like any classic dish (like potato salad or coleslaw), there are endless variations on how to make it. Alex and I researched to make sure this version has all the classic elements: and we’ve customized a bit to our personal tastes! Here’s what’s in our version of caponata:
- Eggplant (and it doesn’t need to be drained! see below)
- Red pepper, red onion and celery
- Canned tomatoes
- Olive oil
- Balsamic vinegar and sugar to balance tangy and sweet
- Capers to add briny, salty flavor
- Fresh basil and pine nuts, to garnish
Some other additions you’ll see in some versions: green olives to add even more briny flavor, and golden raisins to add more sweet. We nixed both in flavor of a straightforward, classic caponata: but you can certainly add them if you’d like! (I’d love to add the golden raisins, but Alex is less of a salty-sweet person than I am!)
No need to salt and drain the eggplant!
If you’ve cooked with eggplant before, you’ll know: many eggplant recipes call for letting it drain with salt on it for 1 hour to extract some of the bitterness from the eggplant. If you’re like us, you’ve probably wondered: is this extra step really necessary?
We did some research, and guess what? It’s not really necessary in this day and age. Per Epicurious, salting eggplant used to be conventional practice with eggplants years ago because they were more bitter. Today’s eggplants are bred to be less bitter, so there’s no need to salt them. Look: we saved you an hour!
Toasted pine nuts = icing on the cake!
Pine nuts are traditional for topping caponata. They’re an Italian nut that, believe it or not, does come from pine trees! Because it’s so time consuming to harvest and the trees grow only in certain regions, pine nuts can be pricey. But! They’re absolutely worth it for the nutty, uniquely Italian flavor they provide. If you can’t find them, you can omit entirely (or see these substitutes).
If you do use them, follow this advice: Toast the pine nuts before you use them! Toasting the nuts on the stove or in the oven brings out their flavor in a big way: almost like using salt to bring out the flavor in a recipe! They’re not nearly as good without toasting. You’ve been warned!
Capers enhance the salty flavor
If you’ve never cooked with capers, now’s the time! What are they? Capers are a berry of the caper bush that’s native to the Mediterranean. They’re round and dark green gray, about the size of a peppercorn. You’ll find them in Italian and Mediterranean recipes. They bring a tangy, briny and salty flavor to any dish.
Capers are served pickled, so you’ll find them in jars near the olives at the grocery story. If you pick up a joar, also try them in our Salmon with Capers, Roasted Eggplant Pasta, and Paprika Goat Cheese Spread.
Ways to serve caponata: as an appetizer or side! (Or a meal.)
Once you’ve made up a batch of caponata, now’s the fun part. Eating it! There are lots of ways to eat caponata, but probably the most common is using it to top crusty bread. Since it’s Italian in heritage, it works well with Mediterranean-style meals. Here are a few ways that we’d serve it:
- On crusty bread or baguette slices. If you’re the baking type, try our Homemade Baguette.
- On crostini. You can also make crunchy Crostini, essentially crackers made out of baguette, which makes more of a showy presentation.
- On a cheese board or appetizer spread. It’s nice for an antipasto spread because it’s a rare plant-based Italian appetizer option.
- As a side to baked or grilled fish. It would make a great side to our Salmon with Capers.
- As a side to pasta. Try alongside Roasted Cauliflower Pasta, Cacio e Pepe, Easy Creamy Gnocchi, or Vegan Fettuccine Alfredo.
- In grilled cheese. Throw some in the middle of a grilled cheese sandwich and you’ve got a heavenly treat.
- As a meal. Alex and I have split a bottle of wine with baguette, caponata, and some cheese or seasoned white beans. Perfect appetizer dinner!
This caponata recipe is…
Vegetarian, vegan, plant-based, dairy-free, and gluten-free.Print
Caponata is an Italian appetizer bursting with flavor! Eggplant and Mediterranean vegetables make a tangy, garlicky spread that’s perfect over crusty bread.
- 1 1/2 pounds eggplant (2 medium)
- 1 celery rib
- 1 medium red onion
- 1/2 red bell pepper
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 14-ounce can crushed fire roasted tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 pinch red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons capers, drained
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- Basil, for garnish
- Toasted pine nuts, for garnish (optional)
- Cut the eggplant into small cubes, about 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch. Dice the celery. Slice the red onion. Dice the red bell pepper. Mince the garlic.
- In a Dutch oven or large saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.
- Add the eggplant, celery, red pepper and red onion and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook 3 to 5 minutes until the eggplant and onions are browned and softened.
- Add the crushed tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, sugar, red pepper flakes, capers, and salt. Cover and simmer on low for 10 minutes, stirring once, until very tender. Taste and add another pinch or two of salt. Serve warm, garnished with chopped basil and toasted pine nuts. Or, chill for up to 1 day and serve cold or at room temperature (the flavors taste even better after refrigerating).
- Category: Appetizer
- Method: Stovetop
- Cuisine: Italian
Keywords: Caponata, Caponata Recipe
More with eggplant!
Eggplant is an underrated vegetable, in our opinion! Here are some more great recipes for eating it:
- Easy Eggplant Pizza Use eggplant for the crust to make eggplant pizza! These mini pizzas are tasty and easy to make, covered in garlicky sauce and gooey cheese.
- Perfect Roasted Eggplant Here’s how to make the BEST roasted eggplant! Baking until it’s tender makes for unreal flavor.
- Roasted Eggplant Pasta This eggplant pasta is flavor-packed with roasted eggplant & zesty marinara sauce! An impressive plant based dinner, it works for weeknights or parties.
- Eggplant Sandwich with Tomato & Pesto This Mediterranean tomato and grilled eggplant sandwich with basil pesto is seriously flavorful. It was inspired by a trip to Italy!
About the Authors
Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.
Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.