The first time my wife Megan and I went to Rome together was in 2007. We ate pasta for three days straight. On our last night, we swore there would be no pasta. We went to a fish restaurant named Pierluigi to seal the deal. They had a beautiful display of fresh fish on ice, and we picked our fish for the mixed grill and waited. As we were talking at the table, the waiter brought over a pasta dish with swordfish and eggplant fries on top — still in the pan. He placed it in the middle of the table and gave us each a dish.
"Excuse me, but we didn't order this," I said to him.
He looked at us and said, "You need to start your meal with something. You can't just have the fish."
So we started eating the pasta anyway. We didn't stop eating it until we were fighting over the last bite. It was the best pasta dish of the entire trip. When I got home, I started experimenting immediately.
Cut the eggplant into sticks about ½-inch thick and 2 ½-inches long. Cut the zucchini 1/8-inch thick on a mandoline (a handheld one works fine), preferably with the waffle cutter, though a flat blade is fine, too.
Pour 2 inches oil into a Dutch oven or deep-fryer and heat to 350 degrees as measured on a deep-fat thermometer. Meanwhile, dip the eggplant pieces and zucchini chips in the milk, then dredge in the flour.
Working in batches to maintain the 350-degree temperature, drop the vegetables into the hot oil and fry until golden brown, 2-3 minutes for the zucchini, 3-4 minutes for the eggplant. Using a wire skimmer, transfer the vegetables to paper towels to drain, then season with salt and pepper, to taste. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Drop in the pasta, quickly return to a boil, and cook until the pasta is tender yet firm, 2-7 minutes, depending on how long it has been refrigerated (or 8-9 minutes for the dried stuff). Drain the pasta, reserving the pasta water.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft but not browned, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Add the fish and cook until white all over but still translucent in the center, 2-3 minutes.
Add the drained rigatoni to the pan. Add a splash or two of pasta water and cook, tossing to coat, for about 2 minutes. Season with the lemon juice, salt, and pepper, to taste.
Remove the garlic and divide among warm pasta bowls. Tear the basil into coarse pieces by hand and scatter over the pasta. Top with the eggplant fries and zucchini waffle chips.