Even though it is sometimes eaten in the mid-afternoon, often by people who have stayed up well past their bedtime the evening before, brunch is intended to be a late-morning meal that is eaten instead of breakfast and lunch. Stuck squarely between two more established meals, brunch is located in a state of limbo, a purgatory if you will.
That’s one of the reasons why eggs in purgatory makes for an ideal brunch order, even though you won’t always find it on the menu. The other and perhaps more important reason eggs in purgatory is a great brunch order is the combination of perfectly runny eggs, spicy tomato sauce and yolk-friendly crispy toast that makes the dish a foolproof hangover cure for those who have imbibed too liberally the night prior.
Christened with its name because the eggs that sit in the middle of the dish are surrounded by spicy red tomato sauce spiked with red chiles, the dish originated in Italy, the birthplace of the famed poet and Divine Comedy (which includes the section Purgatorio) author Dante Alighieri.
Though Texas native PJ Calapa, the head chef and owner of Scampi in New York City’s Flatiron district, has never had eggs in purgatory (referred to as uova al purgatorio in Italian) in Dante’s homeland, his take on the brunch-time banger fully embraces the dish’s traditionally spicy sentiments.
“The reason it’s called purgatorio is the heat. A lot of dishes in Italy are called ‘for the devil’ in reference to the spice level. To me, purgatorio means that it is not as spicy as the devil, but it is on the way there,” Calapa tells InsideHook. “It’s an easy way to describe something as spicy without saying that it’s spicy. You hope people know that, If not, they figure it out.”
A veteran of Eleven Madison Park and Nobu Fifty Seven, Calapa’s eggs in purgatorio relies on Calabrian chiles for heat.
“We make a Calabrian chili paste. It’s not so hot that you’re sweating, but we want you to know that there’s a little heat there,” he says. “The house-made tomato sauce is kind of the star of the dish. We bake the eggs right in it. But we take the flavors from a pasta that we serve at night, a pork shoulder ravioli that’s made with cured pancetta, and we serve it with a big piece of grilled bread on the side. It’s a simple, hearty, brunch dish with a little spice to it that’s fresh and delicious.”
And, like Dante’s Divine Comedy, Calapa’s eggs in purgatorio contains multiple levels.
“The eggs are nice and rich. The whites set and the yolks stay runny. You almost get a creaminess from the eggs without using dairy, and there’s some nice high acidity in the tomatoes,” he says. “You’re getting different texture contrasts from the crispy pancetta, the baked eggs, the runny yolks and the beautiful, bubbling tomato sauce. It just makes you want to dip a piece of bread through all of it. There’s a reason why you like it. You don’t know why, but your tongue doesn’t lie.”
Use the following recipe from Calapa to see if he speaks the truth — and possibly burn your tongue.
Chef PJ Calapa’s Eggs in Purgatorio
- 28 oz can San Marzano tomatoes, crushed
- ½ cup onion, small diced
- 6 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 bunch basil, torn
- ¼ pound of pancetta, cut into lardons
- 4 eggs
- 1 tablespoon Calabrian chiles, chopped
- 1 tablespoon pecorino, grated
- 2 large pieces of toast
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Sweat onions garlic in the olive oil until opaque
- Crush tomatoes by hand and add to onion and garlic mixture
- Add half the basil and reduce by 30%
- Render pancetta til crispy and put asie
- Remove tomato sauce and put aside
- In an oven-safe dish, add 1.5 cups of tomato sauce
- Also add in Calabrian chiles, pancetta, and reserve basil, give it a stir and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper
- Carefully crack eggs into dish and bake till whites are set, about 10 minutes at 350F
- Broil tomato mis to finish setting the whites
- Toast your bread
- Grate cheese on top and enjoy
Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.