Italian

Pasta alla Norma (Eggplant and Tomato Pasta)

by:
September  9, 2014

Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies  is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.  

Today: A Sicilian pasta dish worthy of the highest praise.

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I used to think that this dish was simply named after someone's nonna -- after all, someone's nonna is usually the creator of Italy's best classic dishes. In my mind, Norma loved eggplants, and this was her signature dish. As a 20-year-old art student living in Italy, I used to hypothesize the origins of this recipe -- one of the first I learned -- as I attempted to master it.

As it turns out, the namesake of the dish isn't just any old Norma. The pasta is named after Bellini's 19th-century opera, Norma, which is widely considered the composer's best achievement. If you're not familiar, think about work worthy of La Scala and Maria Callas -- now go ahead, be impressed.

More: Get to know your pasta shapes.

In fact, the phrase una vera Norma, “a real Norma," is used to sing praise to something remarkable. And this simple and essential Sicilian dish of deep-fried eggplant and punchy tomato sauce is indeed remarkable -- no wonder it's one of the region's most famous recipes.

Like a true legend, there are countless stories about how this dish got its name. There's the one where a chef, after hearing a performance of Norma, was so inspired that he rushed back to his kitchen to create a meal in its honor. Another says that a group of artists from the opera visited Catania (the pasta's hometown), and upon tasting the dish exclaimed, “Why, it's Norma!" -- likening the opera's perfection to that of the pasta.

More: Here's everything you need to know about prepping eggplant.

The final -- and most essential -- touch to Pasta alla Norma is a dusting of salted ricotta (ricotta salata). It's said to represent the snow on Mount Etna, the volcano that stands over the city of Catania. Ricotta salata is a drier, pressed, and aged version of fresh ricotta; the firm, slightly crumbly grateable cheese lends the pasta a hint of saltiness. If you can't find ricotta salata, you can use Parmesan or caciocavallo -- but purists will point out that the flavor substitution isn't authentic.

Don't skimp when salting and frying the eggplant -- the result is a wonderful sauce with a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture.

Pasta alla Norma

Serves 4

1 large eggplant (or 2 finger eggplants)
Salt, as needed
Olive oil for frying
2 garlic cloves, peeled and squashed
One 14-ounce (400-gram) can of chopped tomato
8 to 10 basil leaves, torn
11 ounces (320 grams) rigatoni, penne, or maccheroncini pasta
3 ounces (80 grams) grated ricotta salata

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Emiko Davies

3 Comments

gudrunhelgasig September 16, 2014
I made this the other day with great results, so simple and delicious. My family and I liked the sauce so much that next time I will probably up the sauce to pasta ratio. ("Regional italian food" has definitely become one of my favourite columns on food52 and right now I can´t wait for a chance to make your beet ravioli. Actually I´m thinking about making your pesto trapanese tomorrow and probably the plum and ricotta tart as well. And I can´t decide if should make the riggidanella or parmigiana blanca for a potluck this weekend!)
 
Author Comment
Emiko September 17, 2014
This is the kind of comment every food writer dreams of getting! Thanks for making my day. So glad you enjoyed this recipe and hope you like the others too. The riggidanella is great for a crowd if you make a big version in a large casserole and don't worry about flipping it over!
 
Sara S. September 9, 2014
I want to try this recipe. It's slightly different from the one I usually use - Marcella Hazan's recipe. That ones uses fresh tomatoes, and mixes everything with fresh ricotta and suggests grated parmesan on the top. I like the idea of just using ricotta salata on top - it's much lighter too. Anyway, this looks gorgeous!