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FOOD FETISH

The eggplant parm of their dreams

The word is ''voglia," and it means a craving, the type that Paul and Madelyn Sacco seem to get regularly. If they had grown up in Italy, they might have pronounced the term ''VOL-yuh," but since Boston is their hometown, the word became the Italian-American ''wuh-LEE-uh."

''Italian words are so pretty, then we turn them into slang," says Madelyn.

However it's pronounced, a hankering is a hankering. So when the couple -- particularly Paul, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism -- gets a voglia for eggplant, he can satisfy it only with a trip to Artu. At this trattoria on Prince Street in the North End (another location is on Beacon Hill), the prices are reasonable and the melanzane parmigiana just like mama's.

Whose mama? Everyone's, it turns out. ''Our mothers did this," says owner Nancy Frattaroli, referring to her own mother and her ex-husband's. The couple started Artu 13 years ago with 25 seats. Although Donato Frattaroli isn't involved in the business anymore, the expanded 112-seat restaurant uses the same recipe: Thinly sliced eggplant is dredged in flour, then egg; and deep-fried. Finally, the rounds are baked under a slow-cooked tomato sauce with mozzarella and romano cheeses.

''I have to say, this is exactly how my mother cooked it," says Paul, 62.

Madelyn's, too. She describes her mother as ''an unbelievable cook" who learned from her mother, who was from Naples, where Paul's grandparents are also from.

The two know their way around their own East Sandwich kitchen, where Paul grills porterhouse steaks in the fireplace and Madelyn adds a dash of cinnamon to her meatball lasagna. They trade tips on canned-tomato brands and technique with Artu's chef, 31-year-old Christian Rosati.

As for the favorite dish, eggplant slices are sprinkled with salt and pressed to reduce the bitterness. ''We do that, too," Paul tells her, only without the salt. ''We put those big cans of tomato on top of a plate on top of the eggplant. It dries it out better for cooking."

''And that way it doesn't absorb all the oil," interjects Madelyn, 60.

The Saccos' children have traveled to Italy often, but their parents haven't -- they are planning their first trip for their anniversary in October. They lived for extended periods in historic hotels that Paul managed, including in Washington, Cincinnati, and the Omni Parker House in Boston.

Few places hold as much meaning as the North End. Madelyn grew up there; Paul's mother was born there, although he was raised in Roxbury; and 29-year-old Alexis, one of their three children, now lives there. From the look in Paul's eyes when the eggplant parm arrives, their hearts belong here.

Folded eggplant looks like ribbons under a bright, tangy sauce. ''The key is freshness," says Rosati. ''We don't make five or six cases a day. Enough for a day, and that's it."

As Paul and Madelyn head to another favorite, Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street, for decaf cappuccino (it's late) and rum baba, he muses that there have been times, few and far between, when he goes to Artu and neglects to order his favorite dish. Everything is always wonderful, he says, "But when I get home I immediately say, 'Now why didn't I get the eggplant?' "

Artu, 6 Prince St., 617-742-4336; 89 Charles St., 617-227-9023.

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