Diner's dictionary Defining unfamiliar menu terms

Fresh fish with caponata, a cold Italian salad made with eggplant and anchovies, at Southerly Restaurant in Mount Pleasant.

Caponata (kap-oh-NAH-tah)

Merriam-Webster defines caponata as a "sailor's dish," likely in recognition of the eggplant relish's heavy dose of vinegar, which acts as a preservative. Historians still aren't sure if the dish regularly went to sea with medieval Italian mariners, but cooks today continue to take advantage of its staying power: Nearly every caponata recipe advises enjoying it over the course of a week.

Like many saucy, multi-ingredient preparations, caponata gets better with time. Typically made from chopped-up fried eggplants, tomatoes, onions, capers, olive oil, sugar and salt, optional additions include celery, olives, bell peppers and raisins. Caponata can function as a main dish, but it's more often smeared on bruschetta, spooned over fish, or served as a salad. But no matter where it appears in a meal, it stands for Sicily.

Southerly, (Herb-crusted flounder, cauliflower couscous, caponata and broccolini, $23)

Because caponata isn't a starring item, it's rarely a menu fixture. But Lana's John Ondo has served a version made with artichokes, and at Bull Street Gourmet & Market, caponata is a condiment on the Hot Italian sandwich.

This is a very sore subject for eaters who grew up with cans of Progresso caponata in their pantries: The company discontinued the product in June 2002, and judging from online posts, its biggest fans still haven't stopped mourning. But for fans of caponata convenience who aren't loyal to the defunct brand, Cento and Alessi are among the many national manufacturers who sell the appetizer in cans and jars. Check the tomato sauce aisle at the supermarket.